Soviet influence in Eastern Europe began with Soviet occupation of territories during World War II. By 1949 communist regimes had been put into place in all the occupied states: Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), Hungary, Poland, and Romania. Under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia maintained an independent position as a communist state that Soviet leaders first vilified but ultimately recognized in 1955. Domination of the East European countries belonging to the Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (known as Comecon--see Glossary) remained a fundamental priority of Soviet foreign policy through the disintegration of both organizations in 1991. Soviet leaders used the continued existence of socialist regimes in Eastern Europe as part of the ideological justification of socialism at home because it fulfilled the Marxist-Leninist recipe of the rule of the multinational proletariat. Because of that logic, a threat to Eastern Europe became a threat to the Soviet Union itself.
In the 1950s, the Soviet military used force to restrain mass expressions of resistance to conventional, Soviet-backed regimes in East Germany (1953), Poland (1956), and Hungary (1956). After the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia quelled political liberalization in that country, the irreversibility of communist control in East European countries was formulated in what became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine, which for the next twenty years was the foundation of Soviet policy toward the region. Soviet policy makers determined that occupation forces were the only sure guarantee of continued communist rule in Eastern Europe and that some limited local control over domestic policy was necessary to avoid future resistance. When Polish workers pushed their demands for independent trade unions and the right to strike in 1980-81, the implicit threat of invasion by Soviet forces led Polish police and security forces to quell disturbances and a new, military prime minister, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, to declare martial law.
In the mid-1980s, Gorbachev's internal liberalization was paralleled by his doctrine of "many roads to socialism," which called for cooperation rather than uniformity among East European nations. That call coincided with the implicit revocation in 1988 of the Brezhnev Doctrine as Soviet military doctrine recognized the need to conserve resources (see Soviet Doctrine, ch. 9). Gorbachev's internal reform programs of glasnost
(see Glossary) and perestroika
(see Glossary) received varying degrees of support and imitation among East European leaders. Regimes in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Poland showed substantial support, but those in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Romania refused to adopt the type of far-reaching domestic reforms that Gorbachev introduced at home (see The Gorbachev Era, ch. 2). Nevertheless, by the late 1980s the nature of Soviet influence had shifted unmistakably away from coercion toward political and economic instruments of influence. The last stage of Soviet relations with the region, 1989-91, was fundamentally different. By 1990 all the East European member states of the Warsaw Pact and Comecon had rejected their communist regimes and were straining toward the West. Although Soviet policy makers struggled to keep the two multinational organizations alive as instruments of influence, events had rendered them moribund before their formal demise in 1991. Now the world redesignated Eastern Europe as Central Europe, and the great western buffer zone disappeared.
Immediately after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and Comecon and the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, relations with Central Europe were a relatively low priority of Russian foreign policy. This situation began to change during 1992, when many Russian reformists argued that closer ties with the new Central European democracies would bolster Russia's own commitment to democratization. Closer commercial ties also would make Central Europe's relatively inexpensive goods more readily available and afford better opportunities to make valuable connections with Western Europe as the former Warsaw Pact states moved closer to full integration into Europe.
Russia's January 1993 draft foreign policy concept stressed the importance of Central Europe. The concept proclaimed that the region "falls within the historical sphere of our interests" because it abuts "the belt of sovereign states"--Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia--of great interest to Russia. The concept warned against attempts by the West to push Russia out of Central Europe and to make the region into a buffer zone that would isolate Russia from Western Europe. Russia would counter such movements by reestablishing good trade and other relations with the Central European states.