WORLD

Is time running out?

Legislators confront the nation’s problems

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 9 1989
WORLD

Is time running out?

Legislators confront the nation’s problems

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 9 1989

Is time running out?

WORLD

THE SOVIET UNION

Legislators confront the nation’s problems

When he arrived in Moscow in September from his home town of Minsk, Alexander Zhuravlov, a member of the Supreme Soviet, brought with him a new sense of urgency and frustration. Two months ago, at the close of the first-ever session of the country’s newly revamped legislature, Zhuravlov recalled, “We were euphoric about the decisions we made.” But since returning to his home republic of Byelorussia to meet constituents, Zhuravlov said he discovered that “the people have proven far less enthusiastic.”. Instead, many of them criticized legislature members for failing to deal with the country’s rapidly deepening social and economic problems. Last week, at the start of a new session of the Supreme Soviet, Zhuravlov said that he and fellow deputies are determined to heed their critics. He declared, “To cure our economy, we have got to act fast.”

In fact, the resumption of Supreme Soviet sessions was marked by a palpable concern that time is running out for resolving a number of potentially catastrophic problems. Among them: the possibility of hyperinflation, a dramatic worsening of food and consumer supplies, a tide of nationalism across the Soviet

Union’s 15 republics, growing crime and explosive tensions among many of the country’s more than 100 different ethnic groups. In response, the Kremlin, led by President Mikhail Gorbachev, said that it is prepared to take tough and immediate measures. Declared Gorbachev: “These months and the next year or two are, perhaps, decisive for our destiny.” In a separate speech, he added, “We are all aware of the need to tighten discipline and strengthen state and public order in this country.” Meanwhile, Finance Minister Valentin Pavlov, who called the country’s current economic situation “a crisis,” tabled a budget aimed at halving the country’s current $240-billion annual deficit. His proposals included reduced spending on military weapons and sharply increased production of consumer goods.

Those measures were unveiled less than a week after a shuffle in the ruling Politburo removed two leading hard-line conservatives, including Vladimir Shcherbitsky, who last week also lost his post as Ukrainian party chief. And they reflect Gorbachev's impatience with the pace of perestroika (economic and political restructuring) and the problems he is encountering. His apparent new emphasis on law-and-

order measures—a topic he discussed several times last week—are a result of widespread concern over organized crime and ethnic-related rioting. Soviet justice ministry figures show that, between the first half of 1989 and the similar period last year, there was a 32-per-cent increase in reported crimes—and a 40-per-cent increase in violent crime. As a result, despite sharp cuts in other sectors, the new budget proposes devoting an additional $1 billion to crimeprevention programs.

At the same time, Kremlin leaders made clear that they are prepared to counter future ethnic violence with tough retaliatory measures. Last week, Gorbachev said that the disputed Transcaucasus region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the republic of Azerbaijan is now the “greatest concern” of the Soviet leadership. In the fight for control of the region—populated by largely Christian Armenians in the predominantly Moslem republic— more than 100 people have died in the past 20 months. Throughout September, an Azerbaijani blockade of train supplies destined for neighboring Armenia caused severe shortages and stopped restoration work on areas devastated by a massive earthquake that killed more than 25,000 Armenians last December.

At the centre of the fighting within NagornoKarabakh, Soviet interior ministry soldiers have been repeatedly attacked by local residents—even when delivering badly needed supplies by helicopter. Said Col. V. A. Skorobogatov, a political officer with the interior ministry: “The local authorities do little to improve the soldiers’ condition, although it is the troops that bring vital help.” Last week, after two soldiers were killed by an attacking mob, Gorbachev told the Supreme Soviet that the government would take “concrete measures” to end violence.

Later, an interior ministry official said on Soviet television that his troops would “respond with force” to violence. The day after Gorbachev warned the leaders of the squabbling southern republics to negotiate an end to the rail blockade, the Soviet media reported that violence had lessened, and that freight trains guarded by interior ministry troops had resumed shipments of building materials and potatoes to Armenia. But the potatoes were rotten after sitting three weeks in the hot Azerbaijani sun.

Just before the start of the Supreme Soviet session, Pravda, the Communist party daily newspaper, published a Central Committee document that seems certain to anger many already disenchanted minorities across the country. While maintaining the Kremlin’s re-

cent promise to give sovereignty to the republics, the plan adopted by the policymaking Central Committee stipulates that any republican laws that contradict Soviet law can be overruled. It also dismisses as “unacceptable in principle” plans to form separate Communist parties in the republics and calls for the enshrining of Russian as the state language across the country. Western diplomats said that the watered-down plans for greater republican autonomy reflected Gorbachev’s frustration over the republics’ failure to cool their nationalist demonstrations despite repeated warnings.

Soviet authorities acknowledge that an increased emphasis on law-and-order measures offers, at best, a partial solution to rising crime and ethnic violence. A principal cause of both, many Soviets say, is economic and social unrest that has left many people feeling that there are few remaining staples of life they can take for granted. Declared a recent document on ethnic tensions prepared by the Soviet Academy of Social Sciences: “The ethnic situation involves a far wider range of social problems.”

In the face of severe shortages, Soviets, particularly the elderly, say that they resent the government’s criticism of past leaders. Said Vladimir Borodin, a 65-year-old pensioner and veteran of the Second World War: “If [disgraced former leader Josef]

Stalin was so bad, how was it that everyone had something to eat?” Many Soviets add that the sweeping self-criticism that the country’s leadership has undertaken weakens faith in the Soviet Union’s most central institutions.

When Gorbachev met recently with a group of workers and farmers, many of them complained that their faith in the Communist party has been badly shaken by repeated public attacks on it.

For their part, supporters of reform say that it is more important to try to correct injustices than to obscure them. “Until recently, we have maintained that the nation has no poor,” declared Marala Manov, a Supreme Soviet member from the republic of Turkmenia. “The reality is different.” In fact, the government estimates that 43 million of the Soviet Union’s 286 million people now live below the poverty line. And, although the Soviet Constitution guarantees every adult the right to work, other government estimates show that between 10 million and 15 million people are now unem-

ployed. Said Vana Obaitelayev, a deputy from the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan: “We have got to draft and enact a law on employment stating unambiguously how the right to work shall be ensured.”

But it is not clear how the government will be able to reconcile the need for new social programs with its own growing financial problems. Last week’s budget has ambitious aims, but it did not explain how many of them will be achieved. New taxes on private enterprise, or “co-operative” ventures, coupled with a new progressive income tax rate, will increase rev-

enue but likely raise only a fraction of the additional $108 billion that the finance ministry is looking for. It is also not clear how successful the government will be in its plans to float an internal, and unprecedented, $ 120-billion bond issue. Some factories that now produce military weapons are expected to switch to producing consumer goods. But Moscow-based Western diplomats expressed doubt that the hardpressed government can meet its goal of increasing production of consumer items by 20 per cent in a year.

Still, Soviet officials say that they must find a

way to reach that goal. Pravda reported last week that “out of 276 basic consumer goods, 243 cannot be found in shops, including soap, toothpaste, razor blades, notebooks, pencils, clothing and shoes.” That led Alexei Levashev, a representative of Leningrad in the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies, to predict that unless urgent measures are taken soon to ease shortages, “we will face a wave of strikes unlike anything known in the West.”

The shortages have helped fuel strong resentment of the co-operative movement. Although limited private ownership of enterprises is one of the keystones of Gorbachev’s reforms, many Soviets regard their establishment as a betrayal of socialist principles. They also contend that co-operatives make inflated profits while siphoning off badly needed consumer items from state stores. At last week’s Supreme Soviet sessions, several members called for the outright abolition of co-operatives. Although Gorbachev has continued to defend the principle of limited private enterprise, he has promised to take measures to limit their profits. Declared the Soviet leader: “We have to take into account the mood of the people.”

A further problem is the sharply decreasing value of the ruble. Although Soviet currency cannot be used outside the country, its formal exchange rate traditionally hovers at around $2. A year ago, black-marketeers in Moscow were offering an exchange rate of six rubles for one Canadian dollar—and that rate has since doubled. In the past, Soviet economists acknowledge, government deficits were covered by simply printing more rubles. Now, the country is awash in its own paper currency, which has led to fears of runaway inflation. One member of the Soviet State Planning Committee told the weekly Moscow News that the country has the equivalent of 18 cents worth of goods for every dollar in circulation. § And the official added, “The situais tion is such that we are running 1 short of even the paper for printing ? money.”

Faced with those challenges, Gorbachev and Supreme Soviet deputies will have to confront fundamental issues surrounding their role as leaders. Said Alexander Zhuravlov: “We deputies must meet with the electorate more often.” For his part, an impatient Gorbachev did not seem to be in a mood for debate. He told deputies that the new session should feature “efficiency and rational use of time.” Amid the growing pessimism and speculation about the country’s future, it was another sign that both time and tempers are running short.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH