By Patricia H. Kushlis
Twenty years ago on November 9, 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. Just 16 days before, Mikhail Gorbachev’s press spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov referred in passing to the “Sinatra Doctrine” in a press conference during Gorbachev’s state visit to Finland. Whether or not this was the very first time Frank Sinatra had metamorphosed from an aging pop singer with a raspy voice and a raft of questionable Mafiosi friends into a Soviet national security doctrine, it was the first time the “Sinatra Doctrine” had come to my attention.
In any event, the term coined by Gerasimov was not a throw-away. In essence, it meant that the Soviet leadership had decided to let all countries including its Warsaw Pact allies determine their own form of government. The reference to the Sinatra Doctrine came from the words in the song (written for Sinatra by Paul Anka) “I did it my way” which had hit American pop charts in early 1969 – twenty years before. But when we, in Helsinki, first heard Gerasimov use it, it was not at all clear what he meant or its impending ramifications.
As it turned out, this nearing-the-end-of-life song was prescient in more ways than Gerasimov or others ever conceived at the time. As I understand it the Soviet leadership never dreamed that their former allies would abandon all forms of Communism – Russian style or the softer Euro version – en masse almost immediately after the threat of a Soviet military crackdown evaporated.
Crooning the Soviet death knell without even knowing it
In fact, the Sinatra Doctrine signaled the death knoll of the Soviet Union at the relatively tender age of 74 - seven years before crooner Frank Sinatra died of a heart attack at 82 in 1998. But even before the Soviet Union expired, Moscow’s decision to stop propping up flailing Communist governments from Warsaw to Sofia altered the national security playing field in Eastern Europe. Whether or not the Sinatra Doctrine’s ripple effect alone caused the downfall of the Soviet Union less than two years later is questionable but the rhetoric certainly took on a catalytic role.
As the haze surrounding the Sinatra Doctrine cleared, it became obvious that the Soviet leaders did not expect their East European dominoes to forgo Communism immediately or in such dramatic fashion as they did over the next few months. But that’s what happened. Most just crumbled – like the Berlin Wall. The bloodiest, however, occurred Christmas time in Bucharest when and where the Ceaucescus did not go quietly.
A country unraveling
The Sinatra Doctrine was likely fashioned from economic necessity. The Soviet economy was in tatters from over-militarization, a clumsy and incompetent economic system and the bottoming of the market price for oil and gas – its chief exports. Then there were the continuing wars in Afghanistan and the Caucasus. Growing labor problems and spiraling inflation were another part of the picture. Simply put the social contract and the country unraveled.
But growing unrest among minorities coupled with the rise of independent, non-Communist nationalist political “fronts” begun by the tiny Baltic Republics also made a major difference. From the Baltic perspective, the incorporation of the previously independent Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into the Soviet Union had always been illegal. The US and many other western countries agreed. The Baltic independence leaders thought that the Sinatra Doctrine should, therefore, apply to them as well.
OK for the Poles but not the Lithuanians
Moscow did not see that the Sinatra Doctrine should likewise apply to the Baltics whether because the Russians did not understand the intensity and longevity of Baltic sentiment or whether they were afraid that if the Baltic Republics were allowed to “do it their way” their way would lead out the door followed by a stampede of other republics. I don’t know. My guess is probably both. I never thought the Russians – including Gorbachev - understood the Baltic Republics, the peoples or their aspirations well. But it was clear that the Kremlin feared the break up of the Soviet Union if the Baltics succeeded in their secession bids.
In any event, the fact that the Sinatra Doctrine applied to neighboring Poland as well as to East Germany but not Lithuania did not sit well there. On March 11, 1990, the Lithuanian parliament declared outright independence. January 12-13, 1991 Soviet Ministry of Interior troops stormed the television station in Vilnius and murdered 14 young demonstrators. They became instant martyrs. In the short run, the use of force paid off. It gained the Soviet Union eight more months of an increasingly creaky existence. But that was it. In the end, Frank Sinatra’s “I did it my way” may have helped usher in the Soviet Union’s final curtain call or even bring down the house. It's hard to say.