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The Rise of Nationalist Movements

Rebirth of Civil Society

From 1988 on, mass popular movements began to appear across the country, usually centered in the capital cities of union republics. Typically, they took the form of nationalist movements. The rebirth of a nationalist movement in a given republic was often connected with some concrete grievance or issue. For example, in Armenia and Azerbaijan the explosive issue that prompted national mobilization was the problem of the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region. It was predominantly populated by Armenians but had been ceded to Azerbaijan by Stalin. Armenians wanted it back, and they saw perestroika as their chance to put right what they believed was a historical wrong. In Moldova nationalist sentiments were roused by the cause of reinstating the Latin alphabet in place of the Cyrillic one. In the Baltic republics nationalist movements mobilized around the struggle to compel the Soviet authorities to admit officially the illegality of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which had authorized the Soviet annexation of the three Baltic states.  

A popular front rally in Leningrad. Photo:

The result was that nationalist movements emerged in most of the union republics usually under the blanket term ďpopular fronts.Ē Most of them quickly radicalized their demands, pressing for greater autonomy from the all-union authorities and a reform of the Soviet federation. The Baltic popular fronts, in particular, were among the better organized and most militant. By the end of 1988 it was clear that they would not be satisfied with greater self-government within the USSR. At their mass rallies and in the media the Baltic popular fronts demanded the setting up of a special commission to investigate the circumstances of the annexation of the Baltic states under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and they called for the disclosure and publication of the pactís secret protocol. Their ultimate aim was to compel the Soviet authorities to admit that the pact was unlawful and thus give Baltic separatists legal ammunition to demand full secession.

After the Baltic republics, the Transcaucasian region was another major hotbed of nationalist movements. The Armenian popular front fought to bring the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region back into the Armenian republic. The Armenian demands led to a sharp deterioration in the relations between Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan. In Georgia, the popular front led by Zviad Gamsakhurdia engaged in an intense confrontation with the republicís Communist leadership. The tension broke out on 9 April 1989 when the authorities used the army to disperse the mass rally in the center of the republicís capital, Tbilisi. In clashes with soldiers about twenty popular front supporters were killed. The tragic event led to the further nationalist radicalization of the popular front in Georgia.

Popular fronts were an important element of the transition from Communist authoritarianism to a new socioeconomic order. They represented a broad compromise between various sectors of the population united in a bid to change the old system of property and power relations. Such umbrella organizations were typical not only of Gorbachevís Soviet Union but also of Eastern European countries (e.g., Solidarity in Poland and Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia). Popular fronts were called forth when political parties were still too weak to confront the Communist establishment. Only popular movements had the necessary muscle to do this.

In the 1990 local elections popular fronts and similar organizations won parliamentary majorities in Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Armenia, and Georgia; they entered local parliaments as powerful oppositions in the Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Belorussia. In the majority of republics the Communist party was rejected, and control over policy was transferred to popular movements and republican leaders.

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The USSR's Collapse


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