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The Renewal of the Alliance

In his first important task after becoming general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985, Mikhail S. Gorbachev organized a meeting of the East European leaders to renew the Warsaw Pact, which was due to expire that May after thirty years. There was little doubt that the Warsaw Pact member states would renew the alliance. However, there was some speculation that the Soviet Union might unilaterally dismantle its formal alliance structure to improve the Soviet image in the West and put pressure on NATO to disband. The Soviets could still have relied on the network of bilateral treaties in Eastern Europe, which predated the formation of the Warsaw Pact and had been renewed regularly. Combined with later status-of-forces agreements, these treaties ensured that the essence of the Soviet alliance system and buffer zone in Eastern Europe would remain intact, regardless of the Warsaw Pact's status. But despite their utility, the bilateral treaties could never substitute for the Warsaw Pact. Without a formal alliance, the Soviet Union would have to coordinate foreign policy and military integration with its East European allies through cumbersome bilateral arrangements. Without the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union would have no political equivalent of NATO for international negotiations like the CSCE and Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction talks, or for issuing its arms control pronouncements. The Soviet Union would also have to give up its equal status with the United States as an alliance leader.

Although the Soviet and East European leaders debated the terms of the Warsaw Pact's renewal at their April 1985 meeting -- Ceausescu reportedly proposed that it be renewed for a shorter period -- they did not change the original 1955 document, or the alliance's structure, in any way. The Soviets concluded that this outcome proved that the Warsaw Pact truly embodied the "fundamental long-term interests of the fraternal countries." The decision to leave the Warsaw Pact unamended was probably the easiest alternative for the Soviet Union and its allies; the alliance was renewed for another twenty-year term with an automatic ten-year extension.

In the mid- to late 1980s, the future of the Warsaw Pact hinged on Gorbachev's developing policy toward Eastern Europe. At the Twenty-seventh Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1986, Gorbachev acknowledged that differences existed among the Soviet allies and that it would be unrealistic to expect them to have identical views on all issues. There had been no firm indication of whether Gorbachev would be willing to grant the Soviet allies more policy latitude or insist on tighter coordination with the Soviet Union. However, demonstrating a greater sensitivity to East European concerns than previous Soviet leaders, Gorbachev briefed the NSWP leaders in their own capitals after the 1985 Geneva and 1986 Reykjavik superpower summit meetings.

According to many Western analysts, mounting economic difficulties in the late 1980s and the advanced age of trusted, long-time communist party leaders, like Gustav Husak in Czechoslovakia, Todor Zhivkov in Bulgaria, and Janos Kadar in Hungary, presented the danger of domestic turmoil and internal power struggles in the NSWP countries. These problems had the potential to monopolize Soviet attention and constrain Soviet global activities. But the Soviet Union could turn these potential crises into opportunities, using its economic leverage to pressure its East European allies to adhere more closely to Soviet positions or to influence the political succession process to ensure that a new generation of leaders in Eastern Europe would respect Soviet interests. Soviet insistence on greater NSWP military spending could fuel further economic deterioration, leading to political unrest and even threats to the integrity of the Soviet alliance system in several countries simultaneously. Conversely, limited, Soviet-sanctioned deviation from orthodox socialism could make the East European regimes more secure and reduce the Soviet burden of policing the Warsaw Pact.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:45:01 ZULU