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"Sinatra Doctrine" was the name that the Soviet government of Mikhail Gorbachev used jokingly to describe its policy of allowing neighboring Warsaw Pact nations to determine their own internal affairs. The name alluded to the Frank Sinatra song "My Way"—the Soviet Union was allowing these nations to go their own way.
This was a major break with the earlier Brezhnev Doctrine, under which the internal affairs of satellite states were tightly controlled by Moscow. This had been used to justify the invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 as well as of the non-Warsaw Pact nation of Afghanistan in 1979. By the late 1980s, structural flaws within the Soviet system, growing economic problems, the rise of anti-communist sentiment and the effects of the Afghan war made it increasingly impractical for the Soviet Union to impose its will on its neighbors.
The phrase was coined on 25 October 1989 by Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov. He appeared on the popular U.S. television program Good Morning America to discuss a speech made two days earlier by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. The latter had said that the Soviets recognized the freedom of choice of all countries, specifically including the other Warsaw Pact states. Gerasimov told the interviewer that, "We now have the Frank Sinatra doctrine. He has a song, I Did It My Way. So every country decides on its own which road to take." When asked whether this would include Moscow accepting the rejection of communist parties in the Soviet bloc. He replied: "That's for sure… political structures must be decided by the people who live there."
The "Sinatra Doctrine" has been seen as Moscow giving permission to its allies to decide their own futures. In fact, it was a retrospective policy, as Soviet allies had already acquired much greater freedom of action. A month before Gerasimov's statement, Poland had acquired its first non-communist government since the 1940s. The government of Hungary had opened its border with Austria in August 1989, dismantling the Iron Curtain on its border. As Hungary was one of the few countries that East Germans could travel to, thousands travelled there so that they could flee across the newly opened border to the West. To the great annoyance of the East German government, the Hungarians refused to stop the exodus.
These developments greatly disturbed hardline communists such as the East German leader Erich Honecker, who condemned the end of the traditional "socialist unity" of the Soviet bloc and appealed to Moscow to rein in the Hungarians. Honecker faced a growing crisis at home, with massive anti-government demonstrations in Leipzig and other East German cities. Shevardnadze's speech and Gerasimov's memorable description of the new policy amounted to a rebuff of Honecker's appeals. The message was: "don't bother us with your problems, work them out yourselves."
The proclamation of the "Sinatra Doctrine" had dramatic effects across the Soviet bloc. The beleaguered East German government had hoped for a Soviet intervention to defend communism in East Germany and elsewhere. However, the announcement of the "Sinatra Doctrine" signalled that the Soviet Union would not aid the East German communists. A few weeks later the Communist governments of East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria were ousted, and two months later the Communist rulers of Romania suffered the same fate, signalling an end to the Cold War and to the division of Europe.