End of the Cold War and Nationalist Movements


Summary: By the late 1980s, economic setbacks in the Soviet Union were producing social unrest. Worldwide Nationalist movements were weakening the hold of Communist regimes upon their people. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 precipitated the end of other Communist governments, culminating in the overthrow of Communist governments in the Soviet Union. As former Soviet republics declared their independence, democratic movements continued throughout the world, especially in Latin America and Africa. The end of communism in the Soviet Union saw the emergence of a single superpower—the United States.


Key Terms



International Monetary Fund*

Persian Gulf War*

World Bank*

Breakup of the Soviet Union

While Gorbachev was instituting reforms to save the Soviet Empire, the small nations of Eastern Europe were steadily moving toward independence. In 1988, Poland inaugurated a non-Communist government. In 1989, the people of Berlin dismantled the Berlin Wall; by the end of 1990, the two Germanys were reunited. Czechoslovakia ended its Communist government in 1989; it later peacefully separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The end of communism did not come without discord. A key example was Yugoslavia, where bitter conflict broke out in Bosnia among Muslims, Serbs, and Croats in the early 1990s. Fighting continued in 1998 to 1999 between Serbs and Albanians in the province of Kosovo. In 2004, Kosovo again became the scene of ethnic conflict in the newly founded Republics of Serbia and Montenegro. The province declared its independence in 2008.

Final Days of the Soviet Union and Thereafter

In the summer of 1991, the Baltic republics declared their independence. Independence movements spread throughout the European border republics of Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova, and also in the Muslim regions of central Asia. In December 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved and replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States. The Communist party was terminated, and the elected president of the Russian Republic, Boris Yeltsin, became the leader of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The new commonwealth was faced with conflicts between ethnic groups and also with economic difficulties resulting from its new status outside the Soviet economy. Yeltsin, who initiated policies that allowed for a move toward private enterprise, was faced with continuing opposition during his rule and resigned in 1999. In 2000, a new president, Vladimir Putin, was elected; he was reelected in 2004, and in 2008 was appointed prime minister by the newly elected Russian president. Russia continued to struggle with economic weakness and organized crime. Ethnic clashes, especially within the Muslim-dominated province of Chechnya, plagued the commonwealth.

In 2008, violence broke out as Russian forces entered the democratic republic of Georgia in retaliation for Georgia’s attempt to put down a separatist revolt in the province of South Ossetia. Because Georgia had a security relationship with the United States, the Georgia-Russia conflict renewed concerns of increasing tensions between the Putin government and the United States.

Latin America

At the end of the cold war, more Latin American nations were moving toward democracy. Still, resistance to democratic rule was seen in groups such as the leftist Sendero Luminoso in Peru, which attempted to disrupt free elections in 1990. El Salvador remained under the control of its military, and the government of Nicaragua, no longer under the control of the Sandinistas, had to chart a new course under the direction of its elected president, Violeta Chamorro. The end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries also saw new challenges to democracy in Colombia and Venezuela. In Colombia, violence caused by drug traffickers and armed rebels resulted in the flight of some Colombian citizens to neighboring countries. In Venezuela, the left-leaning Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1999. Concerned over fluctuating oil prices, Chávez nationalized a number of Venezuelan industries, including petroleum. In 2007, Venezuelans voted down proposed constitutional changes that would have given Chávez additional powers.

Additional issues plagued Latin American nations. Some of them owed large foreign debts; and in some, huge international drug cartels threatened government stability. The end of the twentieth century, however, saw renewed hope for enduring democracies and popular participation in Latin America. In Mexico in 2000, for example, the PRI lost its dominant status with the election of Vicente Fox of the PAN party as president. The new administration continued to struggle with poverty and illegal immigration to the United States.

New Challenges

As communism dissolved in the Soviet Union, new challenges arose in the non-Communist nations. In 1990, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein annexed oil-rich Kuwait, precipitating the Persian Gulf War between Iraq and a U.S.-led coalition of United Nations forces. Saddam Hussein’s defeat and the liberation of Kuwait led to only a short truce. In 2003, the Iraqis were again at war with a U.S.-led coalition over Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime and his potential for unleashing weapons of mass destruction. A new democratically elected Iraqi government executed Saddam Hussein in December 2006.

In 1998, India and Pakistan, long in conflict with each other over the territory of Kashmir, announced their development of nuclear weapons. A 2008 terrorist attack in the city of Mumbai, India, attributed by some to Pakistani terrorist organizations, increased global concern over the unstable relationship between the two countries. The nuclear capacity of North Korea also remained a troublesome issue.

In Africa and Asia, new nations often did not have the resources to further their development and had to look to developed nations or international organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for assistance. Violent ethnic conflicts plagued both regions. Repeated negotiations failed to bring lasting peace in the Middle East or to settle the problem of Palestinian refugees. Warfare continued between the United States and Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist organization of Afghanistan.

The end of the twentieth century saw a series of economic problems throughout parts of Asia and Southeast Asia, especially Japan. By 1999, some recovery was apparent. Hong Kong was returned to the People’s Republic of China in 1997.

In spite of challenges in Africa and Asia, the future appeared hopeful. India remained the world’s largest democracy. In the 1990s, South Africa ended apartheid and held elections in which all adult South Africans had the right to vote. New governments based on increased civil rights were emerging in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Images Rapid Review

The breakup of the Soviet Empire in 1991 resulted in the formation of a loose organization of former Soviet republics. Ethnic rivalries continued in the former Soviet republics and in Yugoslavia. Newly founded republics battled with economic problems. In Latin America, repressive governments gradually gave way to more widespread democracy. South Africa saw the end of apartheid and the beginnings of universal suffrage. Challenges remained, especially in the Middle East and South Asia, where Arab-Israeli conflicts continued and U.S.-backed coalitions had been engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Images Review Questions

1 .    Ethnic strife occurred in the Balkan province of

      (A)  Czechoslovakia

      (B)  Kosovo

      (C)  Hungary

      (D)  Belarus

2 .    The end of the twentieth century saw

      (A)  increased economic prosperity for Japan

      (B)  a general decline in democracy throughout Latin America

      (C)  ethnic conflict in Russia and in Africa

      (D)  the resolution of the problems of Palestinian refugees

3 .    Which of the following nations did NOT acquire a new government in the latter years of the twentieth century?

      (A)  Nicaragua

      (B)  Czechoslovakia

      (C)  Germany

      (D)  Japan

4 .    The world’s most populous democracy is

      (A)  United States

      (B)  Great Britain

      (C)  Canada

      (D)  India

5 .    Which of the following has been a common problem of both Japan and Russia in the latter years of the twentieth century to the present?

      (A)  Ethnic conflicts

      (B)  Political instability

      (C)  Economic downturns

      (D)  Huge foreign debts

Images Answers and Explanations

1 .   B   Kosovo experienced a renewal of its ethnic conflicts in 2004. The remaining areas mentioned are not located in the Balkans.

2 .   C   Russia attempted to suppress independence movements from its ethnic groups, whereas Africa experienced conflicts between ethnic groups concerning political and economic dominance. Japan’s economy crashed in the 1990s (A). Democracy made considerable inroads into Latin America (B). Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians remained refugees (D).

3 .   D   Japan maintained the same government since the time of its occupation after World War II. Nicaragua saw political unrest and a new government (A), whereas Czechoslovakia split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia (B). Germany reunited (C).

4 .   D   India, with a population of one billion people, is the world’s largest democracy.

5 .   C   Japan’s economy weakened sharply in the early 1990s, while Russia continued to struggle with the establishment of a market economy. Only Russia experienced ethnic conflicts (A). Neither has seen political instability nor huge foreign debts (B, D).

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