In January 1986, a major crisis broke out within the leadership of the Yemeni Socialist Party, the ruling party in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. In two weeks of fighting many thousands of people lost their lives, and afterward between 30,000 and 70,000 fled to neighboring North Yemen.

The fighting, a result of policy, personal and tribal differences within the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), was by far the most deadly of the four leadership crises that have marked the history of the PDRY since it gained independence from Britain in 1967. The ousters of Presidents Qahtan al-Sha‘bi in 1969 and ‘Abd al-Fattah Isma‘il in 1980 had been bloodless. In 1978, President Salim Rubaya ‘Ali and some hundreds of his supporters lost their lives, but the January 1986 crisis took a much heavier toll.

The fighting began when President ‘Ali Nasir Muhammad, claiming to be threatened by a coup, himself tried to eliminate his rivals in the politburo. A number of leaders, including ‘Abd al- Fattah, were killed, but significant sections of the party militia and armed forces resisted the president. By the end of January, ‘Ali Nasir and his supporters had fled the PDRY and a new leadership coalition, comprising elements from the old regime, was in power.

South Yemen has been the closest ally of the Soviet Union in the Arab world. In 1979 the two countries signed a 20-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. While the Soviets did not consider the PDRY to be a “socialist” state, on the model of Cuba and Vietnam, they did regard it, along with Nicaragua, Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia, as a “state of socialist orientation” which is laying the basis for a transition to socialism.

Damage Control

The January 1986 crisis in South Yemen posed serious problems for the USSR. How Moscow reacted, in limiting the damage to its interests and international position and in preventing East-West tensions from exacerbating and being exacerbated by the crisis, tested the USSR-PDRY relationship and Soviet policy in the Peninsula generally. [1] It also illustrated broader Soviet policy on the handling of problems in Third World allies. This crisis served, to a limited extent, to demonstrate the more open approach to foreign policy that characterized the early Gorbachev period: when Moscow evacuated thousands of Soviet and other foreign nationals from Aden, foreign ministry officials in Moscow allowed Western diplomats unprecedented access to their decision-making procedures. [2]

Many actors in this crisis had an interest in what the USSR did and in presenting Soviet policy in a particular light. Both factions within the PDRY itself sought to win Moscow over to their side. In the Arab world and in the West, many sought to use the Aden crisis to cause the USSR maximum damage in propaganda terms — either by arguing that Moscow had in some way organized the conflict or by presenting Soviet policy after January 13 as some form of military intervention. Such accusations, after a delay of some days, became particularly common in Washington, where a number of senior administration officials charged that Soviet conduct in the PDRY crisis of 1986 was comparable to the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and to other Soviet aggressive actions, real or imagined. [3]

The reality of Soviet policy in the 1986 PDRY crisis in fact was rather different from this portrayal in three significant respects. First, the USSR was taken by surprise. Moscow did not incite or even anticipate the leadership explosion. Much public discussion of Soviet and US policy in the Third World presumes that each must be completely responsible for all developments in or actions by a Third World ally. It should be evident by now that significant events can occur without the knowledge of the strategic ally. The US had experience enough of this in Vietnam. As far as the USSR is concerned, this is what occurred in Afghanistan in 1978-79, and in Grenada in 1983. These junior allies presented the USSR with major internal crises that then had international repercussions. [4]

Secondly, once it became evident that ‘Ali Nasir had lost control of the situation, the short-term Soviet response was to seek to restabilize the situation and ensure a return to normality under as broad a successor leadership as possible. Only this would make it possible to preserve the regime itself and limit the chances of the crisis acquiring an international dimension.

Thirdly, the parallel with Afghanistan rests not upon whether there was, or was not, a direct Soviet military role in the January 1986 crisis, but rather in the broader pattern of increased Soviet authority in response to such a crisis in a Third World ally overriding some of the susceptibilities of local party officials. Throughout the rest of 1986 and through 1987, the Soviets strengthened their control over Aden’s policies in order to ensure that the factionalism and confusion that led to earlier crises would not recur. This happened in Cuba after the disastrous economic policies of the 1960s. [5] Its most acute application came in Afghanistan in December 1979, in the form of direct military intervention. It also occurred within the USSR, when Moscow imposed stricter control on Central Asian republics, especially Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, between 1984-86.

‘Abd al-Fattah’s Return

In the months preceding the January crisis, the USSR was actively dealing with the problems within the YSP. In the first half of the 1980s, Moscow had made clear its support for the general line of ‘Ali Nasir’s policies. Both internally and internationally there was, in Moscow’s eyes, no realistic alternative to liberalization of the economy and peace with Oman and the Yemen Arab Republic.

But the USSR was concerned at the enduring division within the YSP between ‘Ali Nasir and ‘Abd al-Fattah, and from 1984 onwards the Russians encouraged a process of reconciliation. ‘Abd al-Fattah returned to Aden in early 1985 from Moscow, with the support of the Soviet authorities, who encouraged ‘Ali Nasir to use the October 1985 Congress to broaden membership of the YSP’s governing institutions. The result was that the new Central Committee contained not only supporters of deposed President Salim Rubaya ‘Ali, who tended to support ‘Ali Nasir, but also cadres loyal to ‘Abd al-Fattah. Earlier outbreaks of factionalism in May and October of 1985 prompted considerable mediation efforts by the Soviet ambassador, Vladislav Zhukov.

While the Soviet representatives in Aden were certainly aware of the disagreements within the YSP leadership, they do not seem to have envisaged that matters could take the bloody form that they did in January 1986. Up to January 13, Soviet policy remained one of urging compromise and unity on a YSP leadership that had rather different intentions. The parallels here with Afghanistan and indeed with Ethiopia are striking: despite their dependence for ultimate survival on the military and political support of the USSR, the leaderships in all three regimes paid scant attention to repeated Soviet calls for an end to factionalism.

Soviet policy during the crisis itself can be divided into three phases. Between January 13 and January 16, Moscow continued to acknowledge ‘Ali Nasir as president of the PDRY and to lend credence to his account of events. Thus on January 14, Pravda repeated ‘Ali Nasir’s claim that four YSP leaders, including ‘Abd al-Fattah, had been executed as “counter-revolutionaries.” [6] On January 15 and 16 the Soviet media continued to refer to ‘Ali Nasir’s opponents as “putschists.” [7]

Subsequently some Soviet officials suggested that Moscow broke with ‘Ali Nasir on January 14. But only on January 17 did it became publicly clear that a second phase had opened: during this period the USSR sought to mediate between the two factions in Aden. Prime Minister al-Attas and Foreign Minister al-Dali had flown from Delhi to the Soviet capital where they took part in high-level talks with CPSU leaders. After a meeting with Yegor Ligachev and Boris Ponomarev, leading CPSU officials concerned with international relations, TASS reported Moscow’s “serious concern” about the situation in the PDRY, the need to find a political solution and the ”impermissibility“ of outside interference.

The solution still seemed, at this stage, to be some form of compromise: “Emphasis was placed on the earliest possible normalization of the situation in the PDRY and the restoration of unity in the ranks of the YSP, which would be in the highest interest of the party and the people.” [8] Senior commentator Pavel Demchenko reported in Pravda on January 24 for the first time about the evacuation of Soviet citizens from Aden and spoke of “disagreements in the country’s party and state leadership.” Demchenko also provided a cautious assessment of the overall background to the crisis: “In recent years, the republic has achieved considerable successes in both the social and economic area and the political sphere. But, needless to say, there are also difficulties: they include a social factor — the traditional heterogeneity and tribal fragmentation of society, inherited from past eras. They also include the subversive actions of foreign reactionary and imperialist forces.” [9] Such views provided the basis of much subsequent Soviet commentary on the crisis.

A third phase of clear support for the new YSP leaders began on January 24-25. With the establishment of a new party and state leadership between January 24 and 27, the USSR now had an alternative set of interlocutors with which to engage. Some US reports claimed that Soviet military experts supported ‘Ali Nasir’s opponents in later stages of the fighting, but there is no evidence of this. By the end of January, though, the first Soviet planes and ships arrived with relief supplies to Aden and in the following weeks the Soviet Union made great efforts to compose and consolidate the new regime in Aden. It appears that military equipment destroyed or used in the fighting was quickly replaced.Within a few weeks of their leaving, Soviet diplomatic staff and advisors, civilian and military, had returned to Aden.

Consolidating the New Regime

The USSR backed the new regime despite its former commitments to ‘Ali Nasir and the support of the Popular Democratic Union (PDU, the small local communist party) cadre for the deposed president. A series of high-level visits by PDRY officials to Moscow and Soviet officials to Aden over the next year suggested that Moscow had decided to play a much more active role in directing the South Yemeni state. CPSU Politburo member Geidar Aliev stopped in Aden for two brief visits (flying to and from the funeral of Samora Machel in Mozambique) in October 1986. Ivan Kapitanov, chairman of the CPSU Central Auditing Commission, visited in July 1986. The deputy defense minister and commander-in-chief of Soviet ground forces, General Yevgeni Ivanovski, came in April 1987. General Alexei Lizichev, head of the main political directorate of the Soviet army and navy, arrived in October 1987. These no doubt led to a strengthening of Soviet influence throughout the apparatuses of the state, party and armed forces within the PDRY.

On their side, the new PDRY leaders paid several visits to the USSR in the months after the January crisis: ‘Ali al-Bid, the new party secretary, visited Moscow in early February 1986 and met then with Gorbachev, Ligachev and other senior Soviet officials. Prime Minister Numan was in Moscow in June; al-Bid visited Moscow again in early February 1987, when he was an official guest of Gorbachev and was treated to a Kremlin banquet; Defense Minister Colonel Salih ‘Ubayd Ahmad visited the USSR at the invitation of the Soviet minister of defense in May 1987. The pace and level of these visits suggests that Soviet-PDRY relations were, if anything, more active than before the January 1986 crisis.

Current Soviet goals seem to comprise at least four major issues. First, strengthening the PDRY’s economy is a precondition for any broader consolidation of the regime and winning back popular support. It is all the more necessary because of the deteriorating international economic position of the PDRY as a result both of declining oil revenues elsewhere in the Peninsula and of a great reluctance by emigrés to send money back after the January fighting. Prior to the 1986 crisis, Soviet economic aid made up about a third of PDRY receipts, but this did not make Moscow either Aden’s major trading partner or the major provider of PDRY aid. Apart from emergency aid, the USSR therefore strengthened the links binding the PDRY to it and to Comecon and a number of major new economic agreements were signed. The most important covered long-run Soviet support for the development of the PDRY’s oil industry. [10]

A second goal is to encourage unity within the ranks of the PDRY. Up to November 1987, at least, Soviet pressure seems to have been reasonably successful in maintaining the fragile collaboration of the individuals and factions thrown together by the crisis itself. Reconciliation of the new YSP leaders with at least some of those who had supported ‘Ali Nasir and gone into exile with him, however, was much less attainable. From late January 1986 onwards Soviet coverage of South Yemen stressed the need for “restoring unity” within the ranks of the PDRY, and when al-Bid met Gorbachev in February 1987 they indicated that this had been a central issue in their talks. [11] Soviet emissaries were also directly in touch with ‘Ali Nasir in exile, but little came of this effort: the two factions within the YSP were far too divided, and the new YSP leadership itself was unwilling to follow Soviet promptings in this regard. The problem of factionalism, which the Soviets rightly identified as lying at the core of the crisis in the PDRY, continued. If Soviet advice had failed to prevent the January 1986 explosion, it was even less likely to be able to heal the fissures which that crisis itself had exacerbated.

Outside Intervention

Parallel to this internal reconsolidation of the PDRY regime, the USSR also sought to prevent any internationalization of the conflict. Mindful of the US intervention in Grenada under similar circumstances less than three years before, the Soviets were particularly anxious to prevent any outside state, Arab or Western, from intervening in the PDRY. Following the January 23 meeting in Moscow between al-Attas, al-Dali and members of the Soviet leadership, TASS reported that “a special point was made of stressing the purely internal nature of developments in the PDRY and the need to prevent any outside interference in its affairs in future, too.” [12]

The speed with which Moscow dispatched military supplies to Aden once fighting had subsided illustrated how deep this fear probably was. At the same time, the Soviet Union took diplomatic measures to ward off those who might be considering an intervention. Gorbachev reportedly cautioned YAR President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih against any action towards the South. [13] Moscow’s unusual openness towards British and other Western diplomats over the evacuation of their nationals from Aden during the fighting may have been designed to reassure them about Soviet intentions. Soviet charges about “foreign” involvement in the conflict, echoing similar charges from the PDRY itself, were unsubstantiated, but did draw attention to what Moscow saw as the danger of external intervention.

The subsequent precarious condition of the YSP leadership, and the evident desire of ‘Ali Nasir and his people to regain power, must have kept the issue of external intervention alive. Reports some time after the crisis that the US was now considering support for exiled guerrillas operating against the YSP can only have fuelled this anxiety. To counter any possible drive to topple the Aden government, Moscow encouraged Aden to continue pursuing good relations with other Peninsula states (especially Kuwait and Saudi Arabia), the border talks with Oman and a slow reduction in tension with the YAR. The USSR’s own relations with Oman took a step forward in August 1987 with the announcement of plans to build a Soviet embassy in Muscat; Soviet backing for Kuwait over the tanker war in the Gulf must have helped to reassure the Peninsula’s rulers that Moscow was not planning a revolutionary offensive through Aden.

The Soviet policy of “normalization” and restabilization was a limited success. The new YSP leadership remained formally united; it was able to reestablish control over the country; its external relations continued on preexisting lines; and, while much of the population remained alienated from the regime, no significant internal threat materialized.

Many problems remained, however, as the Russians refused to do what they had done following the 1978 fall of Salim Rubaya ‘Ali: namely, endorse in full the new PDRY leadership’s criticism of its predecessor. When al-Bid attended the 27th Congress of the CPSU in February 1986 and included in his speech a criticism of ‘Ali Nasir, this section of his statement was, by prior agreement with the Yemenis, not translated. In subsequent accounts of how the crisis has developed, Soviet writers did mention both ‘Ali Nasir’s role in the events of January 13 and the extent to which “negative” economic trends had developed under his leadership.

These observations fell far short of what Aden was proclaiming. The Soviet media did not cover Aden’s trial of ‘Ali Nasir’s supporters, held amid much publicity over several months in 1987. Similarly, while South Yemeni officials roundly denounced any suggestion that tribal factors had played a role in the January 1986 crisis, Soviet writers repeatedly stated that this had played a definite role, with the added implication that recognition of the dangers of tribalism was all the more necessary because the crisis had exacerbated intertribal tensions. [14] In February 1987 Gorbachev stressed to al-Bid the need for a flexible policy that “carefully takes into account the realities, economic possibilities of a country, the level of historical development of a society, political consciousness and culture of the people, its traditions, peculiarities and, of course, the internal situation of the state.” [15]

Third World Allies

The Soviet leadership did not need events in the PDRY to underline the importance of these factors in dealing with Third World allies. The crisis in Afghanistan had been brought on precisely by neglect of a similarly lethal mixture of factionalism within the ruling party and arbitrary imposition of reforms on society. Subsequent Soviet analyses of the situation in the PDRY restated reservations about the general level of development of the country and its society. As in Ethiopia and Afghanistan, Soviet policy was to strengthen the state apparatus and to provide military support but to urge caution in the reforms which the regime carried out.

Intoxication with the revolutionary phrase was not something Soviet policymakers were willing to indulge. The reflective analysis published in Pravda in September 1986 spoke bluntly of the PDRY as “taking a difficult examination in steadfastness and maturity.” [16] In addition to the usual references to the backwardness of the PDRY, this article also highlighted what the Soviets saw as worrying developments under ‘Ali Nasir: the growth of social stratification in the countryside, including the reemergence of an agricultural proletariat; the siphoning off of food from border areas to neighboring states, where it could command a much higher price; and the growth of corruption in state enterprises. Pravda’s interim grade on the PDRY’s performance was cautious indeed: “Many of the republic’s achievements, even if they are modest, are basically steps on a yet untrodden path.”

The Russians continued to be anxious about the stability of the YSP regime, both as a result of continuing internal conflicts and the many costs of the 1986 crisis and because of the temptations which the PDRY’s weakness presented to external forces. This anxiety was all the greater because, although this could not be admitted openly, one of the many results of the 1986 crisis was an increase in anti-Soviet sentiment in the PDRY. Even prior to the crisis public attitudes blamed the USSR for economic difficulties and shortages within the country, often without reason. The problem was dramatically demonstrated during the fighting itself, when tanks apparently under the command of Muhammad ‘Ali Ahmad, the governor of Abyan and therefore loyal to ‘Ali Nasir, shelled the Soviet embassy in Aden, one of them scoring a direct hit on the ambassador’s office. Reports of Soviet casualties vary — some reliable accounts speak of up to 12 dead while others deny any fatalities.

Whatever the truth about this, the abrupt and public evacuation of so many Russians from their closest Arab ally, and the discrediting of Third World radicalism which the January events occasioned, must have dismayed the Soviets greatly. The fact that Moscow’s closest allies in the YSP, the former leaders of the PDU, had sided with ‘Ali Nasir and were now out of power, was an additional blow. It is not surprising, therefore, that the PDRY leadership missed no opportunity in the months that followed to pronounce their deepest loyalty and gratitude to the USSR. Soviet state and military officials were accorded a special welcome at the 20th anniversary independence celebrations in Aden in November 1987. [17] In private, the Russians warned their South Yemeni allies that they would not maintain their support if another outbreak of factional fighting occurred.

The January 1986 crisis notwithstanding, the Soviet commitment to the PDRY remained positive overall, by the standards of many other Third World involvements. Moscow had not made the economic investments seen in Cuba or even Egypt, and it had been able to contain the leadership disputes in a way not seen in Grenada. There had not been the kind of break that had occurred with China or with such Arab states as Egypt and Iraq. Moreover, unlike the aftermath of the 1978 crisis, the 1986 crisis caused hardly a ripple in Moscow’s dealings with Arab states, now more concerned with the threat from Tehran. Similarly, while Washington had used the 1978 crisis in Aden as one of the list of supposed Soviet “violations” of detente, along with Angola, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Ethiopia, the PDRY was not used as one of the “regional issues” preoccupying the Soviet-US relations in 1986 and 1987. The one way that the PDRY could have become a major problem for the USSR would have been for it to have engaged in foreign policy initiatives that provoked a direct US intervention in the region. This was something within the PDRY’s capacity to precipitate and which Moscow, under the watchword of “normalization,” was determined to prevent.

Moscow gains nothing economically from the relationship with Aden, apart from some fishing opportunities, but it did obtain other modest benefits in the military sphere. These comprise Aden’s refuelling and reconnaissance facilities, useful for operations in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and northern Indian Ocean. Diplomatically they include Aden’s role as the staunchest Soviet ally in the Arab world and an unfailing supporter of Soviet policies in the UN and non-aligned movement, one of the few Third World states to back Moscow on Afghanistan.

The balance sheet of two decades of Soviet-South Yemeni relations is therefore positive for both states. Moscow ensured the security of the YSP regime and provided guidance on the overall range of state and party policies; Aden provided the USSR with diplomatic and military advantages that were of recognizable importance for Soviet strategy, and remained committed to pursuing a set of socioeconomic policies based on Soviet theories of socialist orientation and development.



[1] On the crisis itself, see Fred Halliday, “Catastrophe in South Yemen: A Preliminary Assessment,” Middle East Report #139 (March-April 1986) and Jean Gueyras, “The Last Days of ‘Ali Nasir,” Middle East Report #141 (July-August 1986). Accounts of Soviet policy are in Le Monde, passim; Mark Katz, “Civil Conflict in South Yemen,” Middle East Review 8 (Fall 1986); David Pollock, “Moscow and South Yemen,” Problems of Communism (May-June 1986); Manfred Wenner, “The 1986 Civil War in South Yemen,” in Brian Pridham, ed., The Arab Gulf and the Arab World (London: Croom Helm, 1988); Fred Lawson, “South Yemen’s Troubles,” Orient 27,3 (September 1986). Soviet accounts are in: Vitaly Naumkin, “South Yemen After the January Tragedy,” New Times 48(1986); Y. Glukhov, “A Difficult Examination — Notes on the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen,” Pravda, September 8, 1986, in Current Digest of the Soviet Press(CDSP) , vol. XXXVIII, no. 36.
[2] Martin Walker, The Guardian, January 30,1986.
[3] See Department of Defense, Soviet Military Power, 1987, pp. 140-41.
[4] On Afghanistan see Fred Halliday, “The War and Revolution in Afghanistan,” New Left Review 119 (January-February 1980).
[5] Carmelo Mesa-Lago, The Economy of Socialist Cuba, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1981).
[6] In CDSP, vol. XXXVIII, no. 3.
[7] Quoted by Pollock, p. 57, note 32.
[8] Soviet News, January 29,1986.
[9] CDSP, vol. XXXVIII, no. 3.
[10] BBC, Summary of World Broadcasts (SWB) ME/0015/A/7, December 2, 1987. In April 1987, an announcement noted that the Soviet team working in Shabwa province had begun producing some oil, which had to be transported by trucks to Aden. The 1987 protocol envisaged not only additional drilling for oil but also the construction of pipelines, first to the sea at Bi‘r ‘Ali and later to the Aden refinery. Moscow had already concluded an agreement in 1986 for the modernization of the Aden refinery, built by British Petroleum in the early 1950s. See also Le Monde, April 17,1987.
[11] Pravda, February 11, 1987, in The Soviet Union and the Middle East, February 1987.
[12] Soviet News, January 29,1986.
[13] Le Monde, January 18, 1986; International Herald Tribune, January 24,1986.
[14] Naumkin (see note 1).
[15] Soviet News, February 11,1987.
[16] Glukhov (see note 1).
[17] SWB ME/0015/A/7, December 2,1987.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "Moscow’s Crisis Management," Middle East Report 151 (March/April 1988).

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