215. Intelligence Assessment Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency1

SOV 86–10023

The 27th CPSU Congress:
Gorbachev’s Unfinished Business [portion marking not declassified]

Key Judgments

Gorbachev’s initial party congress effectively drew a curtain on the Brezhnev era and gave him a stronger hand to pursue his domestic and foreign agendas, but it was not the decisive break with the past that some Soviets and Western experts had predicted.

Gorbachev emerged from the congress in an improved position to press forward in rejuvenating the Soviet leadership and revitalizing the economy:

• His control over the leadership was strengthened by the greatest turnover in the Politburo, Secretariat, and Central Committee at a party congress since Khrushchev. The promotion of several supporters to steppingstone positions presages further housecleaning in the top leadership.

• The repudiation of the stagnation and inertia of the Brezhnev era, along with the strong endorsement of more exacting standards for party and state managers, will allow him to maintain pressure on the bureaucracy for improved performance.

• The congress’s endorsement of Gorbachev’s priority for machine building and accelerated technological renovation gives him the mandate he needs to push his goal of modernizing the Soviet economy.

Gorbachev and his allies also broadened the scope of debate on how best to achieve rapid economic progress by asserting the need for “radical reform.”

The congress approved Gorbachev’s foreign policy strategy designed to nurture a favorable environment for domestic rebuilding through more assertive efforts to blunt a renewed American defense buildup:

• By focusing his report squarely on arms control and the US-Soviet relationship, Gorbachev underscored that foreign policy initiatives over the coming year—from Europe to Asia and the Third World—will be [Page 918] geared to the effort to change American policies. Subsequent remarks by Gorbachev and his colleagues at the congress indicate that Moscow will continue to engage the United States while sharpening its attempts to paint the administration as a recalcitrant partner.

• Advancement of two experts on the United States to the Secretariat presages a more sophisticated and vigorous effort to generate domestic pressures against administration policy.

• The truncated nature of his review of foreign policy, however, makes it difficult to predict Soviet behavior on specific regional and bilateral issues.

Although the congress gave new impetus to the main elements of Gorbachev’s domestic and foreign policy line, it also raised questions about the General Secretary’s will and ability to follow through on his ambitious agenda. For every issue moved forward an equally important question was sidestepped:

• In a number of areas—notably economic reform and elite privileges—it was clear that differing perspectives at the top and bureaucratic foot-dragging below still limit the pace of change.

• The congress failed to clear up how Gorbachev can keep his promises to the Soviet consumer while meeting his announced goals for investment growth.

• A core of Brezhnev holdovers remains in key positions, while Gorbachev’s most outspoken proteges did not advance.

Gorbachev’s avoidance of potentially divisive issues at the congress was politically prudent, but continued caution could slow the momentum he has built over the first year and undermine his image as a leader determined to overhaul the Soviet system. Whether the congress proves to be the major “turning point” in Soviet history that Gorbachev clearly wants it to be will depend on his ability to pursue the unfinished business left by the congress. To this end he needs to:

• Further shift the balance at the top by replacing old guard holdovers with allies more open to change.

• Make headway against the vast bureaucracy that historically has frustrated change by maintaining public pressure for exacting standards and perhaps authorizing further exposes of elite improprieties.

• Prepare the ground for more substantial economic change by sanctioning a wider discussion and initial experimentation with reform measures heretofore considered taboo.

• Gain a tighter grip on the foreign policy and defense establishments to match the control he has already achieved in other sectors, and begin to make changes of substance in long-held Soviet foreign policy positions.

[Omitted here are the table of contents, the preface, the text of the assessment, and the appendix.]

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Jack Matlock Files, USSR Subject File, 1980–1986, USSR-Internal Politics. Confidential; [handling restriction not declassified]. Prepared in the Office of Soviet Analysis of the Directorate of Intelligence. A typed note on the first page reads: “Information available as of 15 April 1986 was used in this report.”