The issue Gorbachev understood least of all was that of the nationalities. Stalin, a Georgian, had been a commissar for nationalities, Khrushchev had built his career suppressing Ukrainian nationalism, and Brezhnev had risen through his work in Ukraine and Moldavia. Gorbachev was a Russian whose political background included little time outside Russia proper. His policies of glasnost
, which loosened authoritarian controls over society, facilitated and fueled the airing of national grievances in the republics. As the peoples of the Soviet Union began to assert their respective national characters, they clashed with ethnic minorities within their republics and with Soviet authorities (see table 4, Appendix).
As early as 1985, reports of clashes between Estonian and Russian students began seeping into the West. By 1987 the Baltic republics all had developed popular fronts and were calling for the restoration of their independence. In November 1988, Estonia issued a declaration of sovereignty, claiming that all Estonian laws superseded Soviet laws. Lithuania and Latvia followed with their own declarations of sovereignty in May and July 1989, respectively.
The first major flare-up of ethnic violence came in December 1986, when Gorbachev replaced the first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakstan with an ethnic Russian. A large crowd gathered in the Kazakstani capital, Alma-Ata (renamed Almaty after independence), to protest the move. When a force of 10,000 Soviet troops was deployed in Alma-Ata to disperse the crowds, demonstrators rioted.
In 1987 citizens of the autonomous oblast of Nagorno-Karabakh, a landlocked enclave of Armenians inside Azerbaijani territory, petitioned the Central Committee, requesting that the region be made part of the Armenian Republic. The Central Committee's rejection of this petition was followed by demonstrations in the autonomous oblast and similar displays of sympathy in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. A promise by Gorbachev to establish a commission to study the Karabakh issue provoked outrage in Azerbaijan. After an anti-Armenian pogrom took place outside Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, large-scale fighting erupted between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, with both groups claiming to have been victimized by the Soviet regime in Moscow. In both republics, people rallied around popular fronts, which later became movements for independence from the Soviet Union. By the end of 1988, Georgia had developed its own popular front as well. In April 1989, more than twenty Georgians were killed as Soviet troops brutally dispersed demonstrators in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
Ethnic violence became a frequent occurrence throughout the Soviet Union--in Uzbekistan's Fergana Valley between Uzbeks and Meskhetian Turks, and in Georgia, when that republic's Abkhazian Autonomous Republic and South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast sought status as separate Soviet republics. Wherever Soviet forces intervened, they either failed to master the situation or contributed to the violence. In January 1990, the Armenian Supreme Soviet enacted a measure giving its own legislation supremacy over Soviet law. In the Armenian government's view, this meant that the Soviet demarcation of autonomous jurisdictions such as Nagorno-Karabakh no longer was binding on Armenians in that enclave. That vote caused rioting to break out in Azerbaijan. When the Soviet government imposed a state of emergency in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku and deployed 11,000 troops to end the anti-Armenian and anticommunist riots, at least eighty-three Azerbaijanis were killed.
As it had in the republics along the Soviet southern perimeter, national consciousness reawakened in Ukraine and Belorussia. In Ukraine the first popular front, the Ukrainian Popular Movement for Perestroika, known as Rukh, held its founding congress in September 1989. On March 4, 1990, Ukraine and Belorussia elected new legislatures. In both cases, opposition movements and coalitions made good showings despite ballot tampering and legal obstacles erected by authorities.
In March 1990, Lithuania declared independence, and Gorbachev imposed a partial economic blockade in response. That same year, riots also took place in Tajikistan and in the Kyrgyz city of Osh, leading to hundreds of deaths and the imposition of a state of emergency in several areas of Kyrgyzstan. The Moldavian government also declared a state of emergency when Gagauz separatists tried to declare the independence of their region, prompting Gorbachev to deploy troops from the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Moldavia. Violence between ethic Romanian Moldavians and Russians broke out in the Transnistria region of the republic a few weeks later. In October 1990, multiparty legislative elections in Georgia resulted in victory for the pro-independence bloc, and the new Supreme Soviet in Tbilisi began to move toward declaring independence. The major challenge to Gorbachev, however, came not from the non-Russian constituent republics but from Russia itself.
Many institutions that existed in the other constituent republics did not exist in Russia. Russia had no television stations addressing specifically Russian interests. Unlike other republics, the Russian Republic had no academy of sciences (see Glossary). It also lacked a ministry of internal affairs, a republic-level KGB, and a Russian communist party. Between 1918 and 1925, the CPSU had been called the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik), but it was known as the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik) from 1925 until 1952 when Stalin changed the name to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Such a policy by the communists had aimed at tying the Russian people as closely as possible to the Soviet state. The strategy was based on the belief that, lacking internal security forces and the political base that would be furnished by a Russian communist party, the Russians would be unlikely to engage in opposition to the system. By 1990, however, Russians were beginning to think differently. Although the predominantly Russian CPSU promoted policies of Russification to facilitate its rule and to placate the large Russian population, in the late 1980s average Russians increasingly saw the CPSU's efforts to co-opt and coerce the other nationalities as debasing the Russian language and culture and depleting Russian natural and financial resources. Gorbachev viewed this growing body of opinion with fear, but Yeltsin, who had been learning from the Baltic republics' struggle, saw it as providing an opportunity. Yeltsin took up the cause of Russia's rights within the union, making alliances with both Russian nationalists and Russian liberals.
In July 1990, Gorbachev finally acceded to the founding of the Russian Communist Party, which became a bastion of Russian nationalist conservatism and opposition to Gorbachev. The party failed to gain control of the Russian Republic's legislative bodies, however. Instead, it faced formidable competition in the Russian Congress of People's Deputies, which by that time was dominated by Yeltsin. Yeltsin's May 1990 election as chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet had made him the de facto president of the Russian Republic, just as Gorbachev's election as chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union had made him de facto president of the country in 1989.
Yeltsin's new position enabled him to pose a serious challenge to Gorbachev. On June 11, 1990, Russia issued its declaration of sovereignty, the first republic to do so after the Baltic states. This move challenged Soviet jurisdiction over the very heart of the union. By the end of November, another nine republics had followed Russia's lead. The last instance of cooperation between Yeltsin and Gorbachev in this period was their effort in the fall of 1990 to draft a common economic policy. However, Gorbachev's desire to protect the favored position of the military-industrial establishment caused the effort to founder and the two men's relationship to deteriorate rapidly.
As the leader of the most populous and richest union republic, Yeltsin became the champion of all the republics' rights against control from the center. However, he did not advocate the breakup of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin originally hoped for the creation of a new federation anchored by bilateral and multilateral treaties between and among the union republics, with Russia as the preeminent member. When Soviet forces cracked down on the Baltic states in January 1991, Yeltsin went to Estonia in a show of support for the Baltics, signing agreements with the Baltic states that recognized their borders and promising assistance in the event of an attack on them from the Soviet center.
In June 1990, Gorbachev already had initiated talks on a new union treaty. The Supreme Soviet debated provisions of a draft union treaty throughout 1990 and into 1991. With tensions increasing between the center and the constituent republics, Gorbachev scheduled a national referendum in March 1991. The Baltic states, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldavia refused to participate. In the Russian referendum, Yeltsin included a question on the creation of a Russian presidential post. The overall referendum vote gave approval to Gorbachev's position on preserving the union, but the voters in Russia also approved Yeltsin's call for a president elected directly by the people. On June 12, Yeltsin, whose popularity had risen steadily as Gorbachev's plummeted, was elected president of the Russian Republic with 57 percent of the vote.