The Congress of People’s Deputies elects General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev as the new president of the Soviet Union. While the election was a victory for Gorbachev, it also revealed serious weaknesses in his power base that would eventually lead to the collapse of his presidency in December 1991.
Gorbachev’s election in 1990 was far different from other “elections” previously held in the Soviet Union. Since coming to power in 1985, Gorbachev had worked hard to open up the political process in the Soviet Union, pushing through legislation that eliminated the Communist Party’s monopoly on power and establishing the Congress of People’s Deputies. The public at large elected the Congress by secret ballot. By 1990, however, Gorbachev was facing criticism from both reformers and communist hard-liners. The reformers, such as Boris Yeltsin, criticized Gorbachev for the slow pace of his reform agenda. Communist hard-liners, on the other hand, were appalled by what they saw as Gorbachev’s retreat from Marxist principles. In an attempt to push forward his reform program, Gorbachev led a movement that amended the Soviet constitution, including writing a section establishing a new and more powerful presidency, a position that had previously been largely symbolic.
On March 14, 1990, the Congress of People’s Deputies elected Gorbachev to a five-year term as president. While this was certainly a victory for Gorbachev, the election also vividly demonstrated the problems he faced in trying to formulate a domestic consensus supporting his political reform program. Gorbachev had worked assiduously to make sure that the Congress gave him the necessary two-thirds majority, including making repeated threats to resign if the majority was not achieved. Had he not received the necessary votes, he would have had to campaign in a general election against other candidates. Gorbachev believed that a general election would result in chaos in an already unsteady Russia; others in the Soviet Union attributed his actions to fear that he might lose such an election. The final vote in the Congress was extremely close, and Gorbachev achieved his two-thirds majority by a slim 46 votes.
Gorbachev won the presidency, but by 1991 his domestic critics were pillorying him for the nation’s terrible economic performance and faltering control over the Soviet empire. In December 1991 he resigned as president, and the Soviet Union dissolved. Despite the criticism he received, Gorbachev is credited for instituting a dizzying number of reforms that loosened the tight grip of communism on the Soviet people.