50. Telegram From the Embassy in the German Democratic Republic to the Department of State1



  • The State of Eastern Europe.
(Confidential—entire text.)
Summary. The signs of popular unrest in Eastern Europe are mounting. Serious trouble in the area could, as in the past, adversely affect U.S.-Soviet relations—particularly in a U.S. Presidential election year. The U.S. will not exert decisive influence on Eastern European developments, but we should monitor events closely, through continued high-level contacts particularly. Perhaps we should raise the issue with the Soviets, with a view to damage control should the situation worsen sharply. Gorbachev faces a major dilemma in Eastern Europe. He needs stability there above all. The aging leaders have a good record of keeping things under control, but they are hardly likely to carry out needed reforms. Eastern Europe might well become Gorbachev’s Achilles’ heel in Soviet domestic power terms, with momentous consequences going far beyond the area itself. End summary.
With the COM/COM meeting in Oslo approaching,2 all of us at Eastern European posts have, I imagine, been thinking about the intimations of trouble ahead in the area that have been coming in. Romanian difficulties are plain to see. Embassy Budapest reports speculation by Hungarians about coming popular unrest.3 The price rises that lie ahead in Poland are not going to be easy. Yugoslavia’s problems show no sign of diminishing, and even though it is not an Eastern European country in a U.S. policy sense, what happens there is important for its Warsaw Pact neighbors. Bulgaria and the GDR seem to be at the lower end of the scale of probable trouble, at least for now. Czechoslovakia is more difficult to categorize, at least for us. And, overshadowing the entire scene, and exercising varying influences on it, are Soviet events, as far-reaching and as incalculable as before. The COM meeting will take place at a time of unprecedented dynamism and uncertainty in the Soviet Union itself and throughout the empire (plus, in its own niche, Yugoslavia).
Besides trying to define the situation as precisely as possible, that is, to assess the likelihood of major crisis for the various regimes in the year ahead, we should try to come up with some ideas on U.S. management of various possible scenarios—not necessarily at the COM meeting itself, but as an ongoing exercise. Such an exercise would be somewhat abstract, but no more so than any other contingency planning. The potentially damaging impact on U.S.-Soviet relations of Eastern European events, in a U.S. Presidential year at that, is grounds enough for careful review of our options.
We do not exercise decisive influence in Eastern [garble] 1968, 1980–81), when we tend, rightly, to avoid over-commitment to popular, national movements. We are, inevitably, in sympathy with such movements—in election years more vociferously than at other times—but we do not influence them decisively either. Just as inevitably, the movements themselves are anti-Soviet, either explicitly or potentially. We cannot convince the Soviets that we are not actively working to give them trouble in Eastern Europe, that we are interested in peaceful evolution, not violent change.
Perhaps the simple answer is that we need do nothing. Since we do not influence events decisively, it could be argued that all we need do basically is observe closely, try to understand the forces at work, and let nature take its course. Even to make that approach clear publicly early on could be useful, if only to lower expectations about possible U.S. courses of action, both at home and abroad. It might seem to some to amount to writing Eastern Europe off, and in this sense it could bring political criticism and pressures in U.S. domestic political terms. It would probably be regarded as useful by Moscow—even if the Soviets did not believe we really meant what we said.
As part of the close U.S. monitoring of the Eastern European situation which I believe useful particularly at the present juncture, continued high-level visits and contacts are strongly indicated. These will not be decisive in persuading governments to adopt correct political and economic courses to meet popular pressures, but they should at least help give us some sense of what the various regimes think they are doing. Similarly, high-level contacts with Eastern European reformers, establishment and non-establishment alike, would signal our sympathies with them and at the same time sensitize them to the policy constraints within which we operate.
I have not raised talking to the Soviets about Eastern Europe because it does not, as I understand it, usually figure in our bilateral regional conflicts consultations. Perhaps the time has come to broach it with them, not just in human rights terms. They might well refuse to discuss it, but I think a good case could be made to them that there is a strong mutual interest in shielding the bilateral relationship [Page 173] to the extent possible from the fall-out of popular unrest and what might follow.
What of current Soviet management of Eastern Europe, which is after all much more informed, intense and action-oriented than what the U.S. can do? In a message written at the beginning of 1986,4 I conjectured that Gorbachev would move to replace the septuagenarian Eastern European leaders “in the next 2–3 years”. Now, two years later, there does not seem to be much change in sight. The local leaderships may be in varying stages of fossilization, and/or in varying manners of political and economic trouble, but they are still in place, with no compelling evidence we are aware of that they are about to be bounced. In the message referred to, I qualified the 2–3 year prediction by saying that at a time of great change in Soviet domestic and foreign policy, Gorbachev’s overriding need in Eastern Europe was order and stability. That being so, he might need the old pols, who had done a pretty fair job down the years of holding things together, often in rough going, for some time yet.
It would seem as if the latter guess is nearer the mark, but my main conclusion is not that, but rather how much more difficult and potentially dangerous for Gorbachev Eastern Europe has become in the intervening period. It is a somewhat concealed issue, because of the general preoccupation with Soviet events themselves, plus the compelling East-West and particularly U.S.-Soviet dynamics. But the facts are not easily gainsaid. Eastern Europe is very bad news for the Soviets right now. Cynics, or realists, could object that Eastern Europe has hardly ever been anything else for Moscow. There is an important difference about the current situation, however. It is one thing to have stagnation in Eastern Europe in a do-nothing late-Brezhnev era. Then, little was moving anywhere, and Soviet intentions and political will were clear. With Gorbachev, much has changed. Soviet political will is doubtless there as before, in the sense that they will do whatever is needed to keep the empire together. But their intentions are by no means clear as to what they would like to see the various regimes do to tackle the mounting problems. A certain impetus for change is certainly coming from Moscow itself, which some Eastern European regimes are uncomfortable with. All the regimes are uncertain about the course of Soviet developments. There is an unusual edginess in the air. The Soviets have taken in public a fairly laissez-faire approach, but they cannot really be prepared to see their clients go off in too different directions. Moscow faces a dilemma. It knows changes are needed in Eastern Europe as they are at home. It also knows that change can hardly be expected from the Honeckers, Zhivkovs, Kadars and Husaks—or Ceausescus. [Page 174] Yet it cannot be prudent for the Soviets to push for change that could be destabilizing. I do not see the dilemma changing its shape or dimensions very quickly or easily. The leadership transitions are needed, but the prospect must be daunting for Gorbachev to contemplate. Eastern Europe could well become his Achilles’ heel, in Soviet domestic power terms. The consequences might be momentous—for U.S.-Soviet relations and international relations generally.
A word on the GDR as postscript. I never thought I [omission in the original] (mostly) Slavic trouble, yet the case can be made. The economy is not really as good as all the stifling East German self-congratulation makes it out to be, but it is more rational, better organized than much of what is round about, and there is always the key, slightly hidden factor—FRG willingness to lend a large helping hand to get the East Germans over any rough spots that come up. GDR resistance in COMECON to Soviet ideas on tighter joint planning, direct enterprise-to-enterprise relations and convertibility, reflects East German fears of being pulled down to lower economic levels. There are plenty of tensions in Soviet-GDR relations, some scarcely concealed, and they are likely to become more accentuated in the time ahead, particularly in the economic area. The SED leadership’s (and Honecker’s personal) reservations about Gorbachev were well brought out in Deputy Secretary Whitehead’s visit last month.5 When DepSec asked if he thought Gorbachev would succeed in pushing through his domestic reform course, Honecker [said] Gorbachev could count on the support of a strong collective leadership, and because he knew the limits of the possible and impossible. It struck us at the time that the description sounded more prescriptive than descriptive.
The GDR is as much caught up in the imponderables of Gorbachevism as are the others, all the SED’s whistling-in-the-dark notwithstanding. They can protect themselves from the worst economic effects of the winds of change in Eastern Europe by a kind of reinsurance policy toward Bonn, which is what they are in fact doing. But there is no equivalent protection on the political side. Thus, while it may be correct to put the GDR in the lower range of potential trouble, it is caught up in the mess too.
Moscow minimize considered.
  1. Source: Reagan Library, Rudolf Perina Files, Subject File, Correspondence 1988. Confidential; Immediate. Sent Priority for information to Eastern European posts, Bonn, London, Moscow, Oslo, Paris, the mission to NATO, the mission in West Berlin, and the U.S. delegation to the CSCE.
  2. December 13–14.
  3. Not found.
  4. Not found.
  5. See Documents 299 and 300.