For 40 years, Communist Party leaders in Eastern Europe had ruled confidently. Each year their countries fell further behind the West; yet, they remained secure in the knowledge that the Soviet Union, backed by the Red Army, would always send in the tanks when the forces for change became too great. But they had not bargained on a liberal Soviet leader like Mikhail Gorbachev.
As Gorbachev moved toward reform within the Soviet Union and détente with the West, he pushed the conservative regimes of Eastern Europe outside his protective umbrella. By the end of 1989, the Berlin Wall had been smashed. All across Eastern Europe, citizens took to the streets, overthrowing 40 years of Communist rule. Like a series of falling dominos, Communist parties in Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria fell from power.
Gorbachev, who had wanted to reform communism, may not have anticipated the swift swing toward democracy in Eastern Europe. Nor had he fully foreseen the impact that democracy in Eastern Europe would have on the Soviet Union. By 1990, leaders of several Soviet republics began to demand independence or greater autonomy within the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev had to balance the growing demand for radical political change within the Soviet Union with the demand by Communist hardliners. The hardliners demanded that he contain the new democratic currents and turn back the clock. Faced with dangerous political opposition from the right and the left and with economic failure throughout the Soviet Union, Gorbachev tried to satisfy everyone and, in the process, satisfied no one.
In 1990, following the example of Eastern Europe, the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia announced their independence, and other Soviet republics demanded greater sovereignty. Nine of the 15 Soviet republics agreed to sign a new union treaty, granting far greater freedom and autonomy to individual republics. But in August 1991, before the treaty could be signed, conservative Communists tried to oust Gorbachev in a coup d'etat. Boris Yeltsin, the President of the Russian Republic, and his supporters defeated the coup, undermining support for the Communist Party. Gorbachev fell from power. The Soviet Union ended its existence in December 1991, when Russia and most other republics formed the Commonwealth of Independent States.
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