May 21

This Day in History

Cold War

May 21, 1988:

Gorbachev consolidates power

In an attempt to consolidate his own power and ease political and ethnic tensions in the Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev dismisses the Communist Party leaders in those two republics.

Since coming to power in 1985, Gorbachev had faced numerous problems with his efforts to bring about domestic reform in the Soviet Union. First and foremost was the opposition by more conservative Russian officials, who believed that Gorbachev's economic and political reforms might threaten the position of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. Both Karen S. Demirchyan and Kyamran I. Bagirov, heads of the Communist Party in Armenia and Azerbaijan respectively, fell into this group—Gorbachev had publicly complained about his frustrations in bringing about economic reform in the two republics. The second major problem faced by the Soviet leader was the rising tide of ethnic unrest in several Russian republics. In the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the unrest spilled across their borders, with Azerbaijanis and Armenians trading charges about mistreatment at the hands of the other. Neither Demirchyan nor Bagirov seemed capable of dealing with the situation. Gorbachev thus decided to kill two birds with one stone, and on May 21, announced that both men were being removed from their positions for "reasons of health." They were quickly replaced with men handpicked by Gorbachev.

Gorbachev's action was only a temporary solution to the problems. During the next three years, the slow pace of reform in the Soviet Union could not keep up with the rapidly crumbling economy and increasingly factionalized political system. And ethnic tensions in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and other Soviet republics continued unabated, sometimes exploding into violence. By 1991, it was clear that the Soviet Union was falling apart. In December, Gorbachev resigned as president and the Soviet Union soon thereafter ceased to exist as a nation.

Fact Check We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!

What Happened on Your Birthday?

Pick a Date

Shop HISTORY