The Derg, the Soviet Union, and the Communist World

Ethiopia Table of Contents

Apparently sensing that the Mengistu regime was in desperate trouble, internal and external enemies took action to hasten its demise. Most important, civilian opposition groups began to wage urban guerrilla campaigns to demoralize and discredit the Derg, and Somalia committed regular troops to assist ethnic Somali living in Ethiopia's Ogaden region in their efforts to separate from Ethiopia. Simultaneously, the Somali government expressed concern over the growing Soviet and Cuban presence in Ethiopia. Until then, Somalia had been an ally of the Soviet Union. After the Somali National Army (SNA) invaded the Ogaden region in July 1977, the Soviet Union withdrew its 1,000 advisers from Somalia. In November Somalia announced that it had abrogated the 1974 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union and that it had suspended diplomatic relations with Cuba. At that point, the Soviet Union adopted Ethiopia as its main ally in the Horn of Africa. In late November, it launched a massive airlift and sealift of arms and other military equipment to Ethiopia. Over the next several months, about 17,000 Cuban and 1,000 Soviet military personnel arrived in the country and were deployed to the Ogaden front. This aid turned the tide in favor of Ethiopia by early 1978.

As had the regime of Haile Selassie, the Derg accorded its international image and territorial integrity the highest priority in its foreign policy. Opposition groups had forced the regime to rely extensively on the Soviet Union to maintain itself in power and to preserve the country's territorial integrity. From 1977 to 1990, Soviet military assistance to Ethiopia was estimated to be as much as US$13 billion. However, by 1987 there was evidence that the Soviet Union had decided to cut back military assistance to Ethiopia and to press for political solutions to that country's several civil conflicts. By that time, there were fewer than 1,800 Soviet advisers in Ethiopia and a total of about 2,000 advisers from Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, and Poland. Furthermore, all Cuban troops in the Ogaden had withdrawn, and the Cuban military presence in Ethiopia had dropped to fewer than 2,000.

Although Ethiopia was dependent on the Soviet Union for military assistance and sided with it in the international diplomatic arena, Addis Ababa on numerous occasions demonstrated its independence in the area of domestic policy and international economic policy. For instance, the Derg procrastinated in setting up a vanguard party despite Soviet pressure to do so. Once the party was formed, it was dominated by former military personnel, again contrary to Soviet wishes. In the economic sphere, Addis Ababa had close aid and trade relations with the West and pursued a pragmatic investment policy.

Although Mengistu eschewed any talk of Ethiopian-style glasnost, Ethiopia could not escape the global impact of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms. When Mengistu visited the Soviet Union in 1988, Gorbachev told him that if Moscow's support were to continue, the Soviet Union would have to see dramatic changes in Ethiopia's agricultural priorities, coupled with political liberalization. The Soviet leader also refused to continue unqualified military and economic support of the Mengistu regime. A combination of economic realities and Soviet pressure encouraged the Mengistu regime in 1989 to retreat at least partially from its dogmatically statist approach to economic development. By late 1990, the SovietEthiopian alliance had ended. As a result, Addis Ababa looked to several other nations, including Israel and China, for military assistance. None of these nations, however, was capable of replacing the amount of military equipment the Soviet Union had supplied to Ethiopia.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress