SPECIAL REPORT

THE VIEW FROM MOSCOW

BRIAN MULRONEY VISITS A WEARY EMPIRE

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 27 1989
SPECIAL REPORT

THE VIEW FROM MOSCOW

BRIAN MULRONEY VISITS A WEARY EMPIRE

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 27 1989

THE VIEW FROM MOSCOW

SPECIAL REPORT

BRIAN MULRONEY VISITS A WEARY EMPIRE

The two men first met as newly minted leaders in March, 1985. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had been in power just six months and the largely unknown Mikhail Gorbachev for less than a week, following the death of his sickly predecessor, Konstantin Chernenko. But an unofficial meeting between the two during Chernenko’s Moscow funeral ran three times longer than the 15 minutes that aides had originally scheduled. And Gorbachev displayed an eagerness and grasp of foreign affairs that set him apart from previous Soviet leaders. But the new Soviet chief had a special reason for his prolonged session with Mulroney: in 1983, as a Politburo member responsible for agriculture, Gorbachev had spent 10 days in Canada. It was his first visit to North America, and he enthusiastically described it then as “unforgettable.” Since then, relations between the two countries have not entirely lived up to that propitious beginning. And when Mulroney returns to the Soviet Union this week, he will face a leader and people who have both become perceptibly more worldly than they were. They are also more weary and less self-confident. In 1985, the Soviet Union still bore the image of a vast, drab monolith—governed by a system that was all-pervasive, repressive and relentless. In less than five years, Gorbachev has shattered that image—to mixed effect. By reopening political and intellectual dialogue in the Soviet Union, Gorbachev has allowed one of the world’s most literate societies to flower anew. In the rest of the world, his diplomatic initiatives have changed the face of global politics and won Gorbachev himself unprecedented acclaim.

Reform: But at home, the high early hopes that his policies aroused are sinking beneath the weight of violent ethnic upheaval and a collapsing economy. After 4lA years of political reform, the Soviet Union has never been more free or democratic. But as even the most basic food supplies disappear from store shelves, the people have seldom been closer to despair.

Signs of increasing hardship are visible almost everywhere. After the government announced its intention in October to reduce the value of the ruble in most transactions by 90 per cent to about 19 cents—compared with about $2 per ruble previously—Soviets mobbed jewelry stores, investing their savings in more durable assets by buying up gold and precious stones before the new rate took effect on Nov. 1. In Moscow, city officials admit the existence of beggars and homeless street people. Private charity funds, discouraged in the

days when Soviet officials denied the existence of poverty, have sprung up with government blessing. Faith healer Anatoly Kashpirovsky, whose weekly TV show is one of the country’s most popular programs, recently gave a news conference sponsored by the Soviet foreign ministry. The ministry sponsored the session, explained an official, because “he helps take people’s minds off their misery.”

That is one commodity that is not in short supply. Less than two kilometres from the Kremlin last week, people lined up for more than an hour to buy milk, and some Muscovites say that it is becoming harder to find bread. Also last week, at a shoe store on Leninsky Prospekt, in an area of central Moscow where many middleand high-ranking government officials live, police warily maintained order

over a line of about 200 impatient people waiting to buy plastic winter boots. With supplies short for the second consecutive year, people bought winter footwear in any size and style available in the hope that they could later trade for a proper fit. Of an estimated 1,000 items that are considered to be basic consumer needs, winter boots are among about 900 in chronically short supply, according to the Soviet Council of Ministers. A 74-year-old retired veteran recalled that, during the Second World War, “we often went days without things to eat. But we understood why that was necessary. Now, we do not.”

Inefficient: There are many explanations but few firm answers for the relatively sudden decline in living standards. Government officials acknowledge that more than a quarter of the country’s agricultural produce is spoiled by the time it gets to market because of inefficient supply and transportation methods. But they say that was also true during the now-discredited rule of Leonid Brezhnev—when such shortages did not exist.

Among ordinary Soviets, the most oftenheard explanations contain direct or implied criticisms of Gorbachev’s policies. Ironically, many people are also angry at Gorbachev for taking steps to break up the country’s huge black market, which they felt was the country’s only efficient means of supply. Now, said Tanya, a Moscow office worker, “Instead of one sure way to buy things, we have nothing.”

Another favorite target is the governmentsanctioned co-operative movement, a linchpin of Gorbachev’s economic reforms that allows private ownership of some business enterprises. In one sense, co-operatives have been a runaway success. Last year, the government said that the country’s estimated 77,500 cooperatives—ranging from restaurants to clothing makers—provided more than 1.4 million jobs and produced about $1.2 billion worth of goods and services—at the new rate of exchange. But many Soviets accuse them of causing shortages by charging exorbitant prices for goods that have been siphoned away from regular stores. That bitterness is illustrated by a popular anecdote: “Do you want to hear a joke about co-operatives? Well, it will cost you 10 rubles.”

Crisis: Such frustration is now manifesting itself in a more worrying way for Gorbachev. An extensive poll commissioned and released earlier this month by Deputy Prime Minister Leonid Abalkin, Gorbachev’s chief economic adviser, reflected a pessimism bordering on panic. Among the findings: more than 90 per cent of Soviets polled said that they consider the country’s economic situation “bad” or “critical.” Only 18 per cent said that they feel “confidence in tomorrow.” And last week, Abalkin himself warned that the Soviet economy was in a “crisis state,” adding that if it was not brought under control within a year, the reform program would be doomed.

But that dispute pales alongside a greater threat to the Soviet Union’s future. Foreigners travelling to the Soviet Union have often described it as more a colonial empire than a

country. According to one well-worn observation, “The United States is 50 states made up to form a country, whereas the Soviet Union is 50 countries that form one state.” The reality is even more striking: the Soviet Union includes more than 100 nationalities spread across a landmass greater than the combined territory of Canada, the United States 'and Mexico. Ethnic Russians make up only about half the population.

Now that many non-Russians’ fear of the government is receding, they are deciding that what unites them as Soviet citizens counts for less than the qualities that divide them. The one bond that many nationalists acknowledge that they share is unlikely to be of any comfort to the Kremlin: all openly dislike ethnic Russians. Nationalists from Moldavia, on the southern border with Romania, to the Baltic states in the northwest blame the Russians for

imposing their language and system of government on the entire Soviet Union, for dominating the most important positions in local government and for ignoring local traditions and customs.

Because of those sentiments, Gorbachev finds himself in political straits that once seemed inconceivable for a Soviet leader. Diplomatic analysts and local commentators alike predict that several of the 15 republics will move to declare full independence from the Soviet Union—perhaps as early as next year. For the Kremlin, the worst nightmare along those lines would be a move towards secession by the 52 million people of Ukraine, which Mulroney will visit this week. But the most likely first candidates for such a step are the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which were forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union during the Second World War. Many Western countries, including Canada, have never formally recognized the Soviet hold over

them. Last week, Estonian legislators declared the Soviet seizure of the republic “null and void”—although they stopped short of a declaration of sovereignty. At the same time, the Lithuanian Communist party announced that it was going ahead with plans to separate from the larger Soviet Communist party.

Damage: Those actions underscored the assessment of some analysts who predict that Gorbachev will eventually have to choose between permitting member republics to secede and ordering the Red Army to enforce their allegiance. Either option is certain to inflict heavy, potentially irreversible political damage on the author of Soviet reform. For his part, Gorbachev last week summoned the leaders of the Lithuanian Communist party to Moscow in an apparent effort to dissuade them from separating from the central party. But after the meeting, the Lithuanians announced that they

remained committed to their plan.

For now, however, most analysts say that Gorbachev’s hold on power is secure. Still, as he confronts conflicting pressures both to roll back and to accelerate his reforms, he cannot escape another dilemma of his own creation. In a speech in 1986 to the Soviet Writers’ Union, Gorbachev declared, “Our enemy ... is worried about one thing: if democracy develops here, if we succeed, we will win.” But, recently, he rebuked Soviet newspaper editors for carrying articles critical of his policies and again rejected calls to establish opposition parties. Said a Moscow-based Western diplomat: “He is learning that you cannot give people the right to disagree and then tell them it applies only when they agree with you.” As Gorbachev struggles to control a fractious, divided empire, that lesson could be difficult to digest—but painfully hard to forget.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Moscow