This conference, the latest in our periodical consideration of developments in the Communist world, differed, refreshingly, in that under the impulse of Mr Gorbachev's reforms, policy issues dominated, not factions within the Politburo.
Wide variations of analysis of Soviet policies, both internal and external, appeared, and even wider differences over their chances of success, defined, it was suggested, as the creation of a modern economy at home and a stable balance abroad.
Perestroika, whether "re-structuring" or "re-construction", involved, it was generally agreed, the comprehensive reform not only of organisation but of traditional attitudes. Glasnost, the citizen's right to be told what was going on, was both a tool and an objective in its own right. While perestroika might not succeed without glasnost, glasnost could develop so as to threaten its success. Thus, while the parlous state of the Soviet economy had forced Soviet leaders to go for radical reform, the openness with which continuing poor performance was being reported (growth in GNP had fallen to virtually zero and food shortages had increased), could not but raise questions in the minds of workers, upon whom the burden of increased economic efficiency fell. A true ideological basis was lacking, though references to capitalism changing hinted at ideological re-thinking. Moreover there was a contradiction, in that a policy of decentralisation was being imposed from the top, against a long tradition of managerial incompetence. Some saw a risk of a "right-wing" reaction. Most, however, thought that while complete success might elude him, Mr Gorbachev was more likely to lower his sights than to be replaced, at least in the period over which it was reasonable to judge his achievements. In any case, none saw any serious rival for his position.
The implications for the role of the Party were discussed. There was no intention to substitute capitalism for socialism and "socialist pluralism", if it began to develop into genuine pluralism, would be stopped. The Party, thinned down at the local level by the transfer of redundant officials, must be strengthened at the centre, although in a less managerial role, if it was to overcome the opposition to reform of the ministries which had obstructed earlier reforms. As a "vanguard" party in the Leninist sense, it could accept that it should be ahead of public opinion, though how long that could be sustained, without, for example, a withdrawal of cooperation by the work-force, as had happened in China under Mao, was questionable.
It was argued that if reform was to be real, individual freedom must receive greater protection. A trend towards greater independence of the judiciary was noted (and a dearth of lawyers) as well as a strengthening of the rule of law, e.g. in contract and civil rights. The role of the KGB had been reduced in some areas, and there was some widening of religious freedom.
The conference considered Soviet relations with East Europe. Soviet interests in East Europe, where each country had to be analysed separately, were, in general terms, strategic, as a defensive glacis, and economic, as a trading area, the source of high technology and consumer goods, and a market. However, in practice East Europe was a drain on the Soviet economy (East European debt to the Soviet Union at $24m matched the latter's debt to the West). If they were to fulfil their role, the economies of Eastern Europe needed the economic and political reforms implied by perestroika; but glasnost could weaken ties with the Soviet Union, particularly given the flawed legitimacy of East European regimes, imposed by a foreign, traditionally hostile, state. Thus socialism had to be made more attractive, through reform, with all the difficulties of controlling its pace and extent. Crucial issues were how Moscow would deal with the problem of leadership succession and whether Mr Gorbachev could capitalise on his apparent popularity in East Europe. He would have to resolve the contradictions in his approach - while maintaining the East Europeans' right to independent national existence, he had not repudiated the Brezhnev doctrine and emphasis on greater economic integration ran counter to hopes for independence and, by diverting exports to the Soviet Union, reduced their hard currency earnings.
Poland seemed to be in a state of stalemate (which might or might not result in a renewed explosion). Bulgaria had been remarkably successful in introducing market mechanisms. Hungary, some felt, would be the next flash-point: although apparently successful economically, its ultimate goals remained in question and pressures for greater integration in the CMEA might account for Hungarian scepticism about Mr Gorbachev's plans. In Czechoslovakia, some doubted the Party's ability to act as a catalyst, despite Jakes's appointment. While Mr Gorbachev had shown skill in handling Rumania, Ceausescu rule continued, with a continuing risk of instability when it broke down.
Despite differing analyses of Soviet foreign policy, there was general agreement, that, whether the "new thinking" was reality or merely old wine in new bottles, and whether Mr Gorbachev had ulterior motives or not, the West, if it was to avoid merely reacting, should evolve policies which served its own interests: where these converged with Soviet ideas, we could proceed, but Western governments must beware of making damaging agreements under pressure of public opinion (which was tired of confrontation and would need attentive handling). More deliberate effort to establish timely common positions was needed. Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan which, like the INF agreement, would not have been conceivable without firm Western policies, was a water-shed: it denied for the first time the irreversibility of socialism, the Soviet Union having apparently abandoned hope of withdrawing militarily while remaining politically. The West should not adjust its position because of the threat of disorder in Afghanistan: Soviet concern came ill from a country which had wreaked such havoc since 1979. More generally the Soviet Union was adopting a low-risk, low profile approach to regional issues. Some doubted whether this represented a more constructive approach: thus, while some argued that Soviet inclusion in a conference on the Middle East was the only practical course and should at least be tried, others expressed complete scepticism. The Soviet Union had shown reluctance to bring pressure on Iran, in the hope presumably of improving relations with that strategically important country. Relations with China had improved, through a shared interest in a calm international climate. There was no sign of a changed approach on Japan’s northern territories.
On arms control, the West must be guided by a judgement of its own interests - and must explain the issues clearly to Western public opinion. A principal Soviet interest remained the removal of US nuclear forces from Europe. (One participant noted an interesting correlation between the arms control proposals in Mr Gorbachev’s speech of January 1986 and his domestic reform programme). While Soviet seriousness about the elimination of nuclear weapons by the end of the century might be doubted, the target was doubtless a means to more limited goals, e.g. "minimum deterrence" or deterrence at lower levels. While they had softened their opposition to SDI, they were unlikely to drop it altogether. A fudged solution there would be damaging to the West.
Conventional arms control was considered the best area to probe Soviet readiness to meet Western needs. They needed to reduce defence costs, but it was agreed that they would not contemplate reductions which might jeopardise control of Eastern Europe. Again the West must concert its policies.
On economic relations, some saw the use of financial measures, especially the grant of loans on a selective and conditional basis, as the best way to exercise influence in Eastern Europe. Similarly membership of the IMF and the GATT, once conditions for membership had been satisfied, could work as a useful influence on domestic economic policy, not only in East Europe but in the Soviet Union itself. Some saw value in joint ventures, others were sceptical. In any event big companies would take their own decisions.
Underlying all was an assumption that perestroika and glasnost were on balance to be welcomed, and recognition that the West could do little to influence events within the Soviet Union. For the rest, the West would be wise to look carefully to its own interests, to work out in concert policies which would further them and, where there seemed to be a convergence with Soviet policies, to exploit that. And above all Western leaders faced with an imaginative Soviet government, would need to pay particular attention to the explanation of the issues to the public.
This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.
Conference Chairman: The Hon Arthur R Hartman
Retired as Ambassador to Soviet Union (1981-87)
List of Participants by country
Mr David Wyke Evans
Australian Deputy High Commissioner to the United Kingdom
Dr John Barber
Lecturer in History, University of Cambridge and Fellow, King’s College, Cambridge
Mr Archie Brown
Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and Lecturer in Soviet Institutions at Oxford University
Dr J M Cooper
Lecturer, Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Birmingham
Dr Jonathan Eyal
Academic Studies Co-ordinator, Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies; broadcaster and author
Mr Roy Fletcher
Regional Co-ordinator, Eastern Europe, British Petroleum PLC
Mr Peter Frank
Senior Lecturer, Department of Government, University of Essex
Mr Mark Frankland
Central Europe Correspondent for The Observer, Bonn
Mr Nigel Hawkes
Diplomatic Editor, The Observer
Sir Russell Johnston MP
Liberal Member of Parliament for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber; Liberal Party Spokesman on Foreign Affairs
Mr Michael Kaser
Professorial Fellow, St Antony’s College, and Reader in Economics, University of Oxford
Dr Edwina Moreton
Soviet Specialist, The Economist
Mr Michael Neubert MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative) for Romford; a Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury
Miss Hella Pick
Diplomatic Correspondent, The Guardian
Dr Alex Pravda
Director of Soviet Foreign Policy Programmes, Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House
Mr David Ratford CMG CVO
Assistant Under-Secretary of State (Europe), Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Mr Richard Gwyn
International Affairs Columnist, The Toronto Star, London; author and radio and television commentator
Mr Alan McLaine
Director General, Bureau of Soviet and Eastern Europe Affairs, Ottawa
M François Barry Delongchamps
Second Counsellor, French Embassy, London
Professor Michel Lesage
Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Paris I
Madame Marie Mendras
Chargée de recherche at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and the University of Paris I, Sorbonne; Consultant on Soviet Affairs for the Centre d’Analyse et de Prévision, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Paris
Herr Jörg Kastl
Ambassador in Moscow (1980-83), (1984-87)
Dr Dieter Pommerening
Director, McKinsey & Co Inc., Hamburg
Herr Berntd von Staden
Co-ordinator for German-American Co-operation in the field of Inter-social Relations, Cultural and Information Policy
Dr Hans Georg Wieck
President, Federal German Intelligence Service
Mr Ichiro Fujisaki
Counsellor, Japanese Embassy, London, at present on secondment to the International Institute for Strategic Studies
Mr Akira Takamatsu
First Secretary, Japanese Embassy, Moscow
Mr Paul L Walser
Foreign Editor, Tages Anzeiger, Zurich
Senator Daniel J Evans
Member of US Senate, Washington State
Professor Murray Feshbach
Research Professor of Demography, Georgetown University; author and interpreter
The Hon Richard N Gardner
Professor of Law and International Organisations, School of Law, Columbia University in the City of New York; Member, Board of Directors, the American Ditchley Foundation
Professor Marshall I Goldman
Class of 1919 Professor of Economics, Wellesley College, Massachusetts; Associate Director, Russian Research Center, Harvard University; broadcaster, author and lecturer; Consultant to State Department, Council on Environmental Quality and the Ford Foundation; Director, Century Bank and Trust Company, Somerville; member, United Nations Association, American Economic Association and Boston Economic Club, Council on Foreign Relations, New York
Professor Merle Goldman
Professor of Chinese History, Boston University
Dr John P Hardt
Associate Director, Office of Research and Coordination, Library of Congress, Washington DC
Professor Herbert S Levine
Professor of Economics, University of Pennsylvania; Consultant to PlanEcon Inc. and US Government on issues relating to Soviet economy and East/West trade
Mr William Mader
Deputy Chief of Correspondents, Time magazine
Mr Richard H Ullman
David K E Bruce Professor of International Affairs, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University; Member of the Advisory Council, American Ditchley Foundation
Mr Alexander Vershbow
First Secretary (Political), American Embassy, London; Member, Council on Foreign Relations, New York