WASHINGTON — Hints have emerged in recent months that the Brezhnev Doctrine, the Kremlin's justification for its invasion of Czechoslovakia and to some extent Afghanistan, may be quietly crumbling as part of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's "new thinking" in foreign affairs.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady I. Gerasimov, in the latest sign of change, agreed earlier this month when a questioner asked whether "the time is now past" when Soviet troops would intervene "in the name of socialism in Eastern Europe."
"Yes, it is," Gerasimov replied.
Stress on Independence
An East European diplomat, agreeing that a change is under way, also pointed to public statements by Gorbachev that have emphasized the independence and equality of Communist nations.
Some U.S. officials and non-government Soviet experts, however, are skeptical that the change is a dramatic one. They agree that while, as one said, the Soviets might "stretch a lot" to avoid using troops if an East European nation tried to leave the Warsaw Pact, they would respond in the "traditional way, with guns," if all other methods failed.
Nevertheless, many officials have taken note of the indications that the doctrine--named for the late Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev--is not the solid, unassailable element of Soviet foreign policy that it once was.
Gerasimov's remark--made on a London stopover when Gorbachev was traveling to Washington for the arms control summit earlier this month--"is quite a remarkable statement," a senior U.S. official said in an interview last week. "You can't take it on faith, but it is sure to reverberate around East Europe. It could be taken as undercutting the legitimacy of regimes that have been maintained by Soviet military forces" for decades.
And the change, if real, could coincide with the Soviet Union's more cautious policy toward the Third World in recent years. While it has not reduced its material support for allies in Angola, Nicaragua and elsewhere, it has appeared unwilling to take on costly new commitments and is negotiating a withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan.
East European officials, for their part, seem to welcome the new Soviet assurances of restraint, perhaps because they wish to downgrade the risk they might face in experimenting with the controversial economic reforms Gorbachev has initiated in the Soviet Union.
Some discount the fact that, in urging other Communist nations to be more self-reliant, Gorbachev has not explicitly addressed the Brezhnev thesis. But a Hungarian diplomat explained that "this so-called doctrine was never formally promulgated, so we can't expect it will be formally renounced."
Reform Movement Crushed
Still, the doctrine was clearly enunciated by Brezhnev on Nov. 1, 1968, three months after the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia that crushed its reform movement.
"When external and internal forces hostile to socialism try to turn the development of a given socialist country in the direction of restoration of the capitalist system," Brezhnev said, "when a threat arises to the cause of socialism in that country--this is no longer merely a problem for that country's people, but a common problem, the concern of all socialist countries."
This has been widely interpreted, in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, to mean that Soviet satellites have only "limited sovereignty." By this rationale, once a state becomes Communist, or "socialist," it can never adopt another course. And force, by implication, can be legitimately used to maintain the state's communist ideology and keep the state within the "socialist" bloc.
When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December, 1979, the Kremlin did not cite the Brezhnev Doctrine directly. But Moscow newspapers said that Soviet forces were going to the aid of a valid regime, called the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, that had been formed by the Afghan Communist Party. That government had overthrown a monarchy in an "irreversible revolution," Moscow said, and Soviet troops were needed to counter an "external threat" to it.
Within the last year, however, as Soviet forces have been unable to defeat U.S.-backed resistance forces, and as Soviet zeal for the mission has waned, noticeable changes have been made in Moscow's rhetoric.
For example, it has stopped implying that a "socialist revolution" was under way in Afghanistan. Moscow is clearly trying to "de-communize" the Afghan government, a U.S. official said, by referring to it now as a "national liberation government."
In these actions, the Soviets "are giving themselves greater latitude, an out from having to defend that regime on ideological grounds from basic changes that rise from within the country," this senior official said.
The most authoritative sign that the Brezhnev Doctrine has been diluted, according to East Europeans, came from Gorbachev himself.