He is a staunch admirer of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev—and sometimes a vociferous critic. Long before the introduction of glasnost (openness) in the Soviet Union, physicist Andrei Sakharov had acquired
worldwide renown through stinging attacks on his government’s human rights record. That stand earned him a 1975 Nobel Peace Prize, but public disgrace at home. In 1980, after denouncing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he was stripped of his awards and exiled to the closed city of Gorky. His wife, Yelena Bonner, joined him, and was herself exiled in 1984. Since the couple’s release in December, 1986, they have largely returned to official grace. But as he prepared for a trip to the West— including a one-week visit to Canada beginning on Feb. 12—Sakharov stirred controversy last week by bluntly questioning Gorbachev’s political future. The 67-year-old Sakharov—himself a candidate in a state election—declared in an interview published in several Western newspapers, “The conservatives will overthrow Gorbachev or at least impose their views on him.” Added Bonner:
“I would not bet 10 rubles on Gorbachev.”
Much of the reason for those criticisms arises from the couple’s dissatisfaction with the new multicandidate electoral system that is a cornerstone of Gorbachev’s reforms. They maintain that the system restricts the freedom of voters because, in the general election scheduled for March 26, candidates must be previously approved by special supervisory commissions.
Sakharov, who is a candidate for the -
newly created, 2,250-member Congress of People’s Deputies, said bluntly, “I believe a more democratic mechanism of nominating candidates is needed.”
Many critics argue that Sakharov’s own case has exposed the limitations of the system. He was expected to be named as one of 25 deputies who will represent the Academy of Sciences in the new congress, which will in turn elect a smaller standing parliament. But, in mid-January, the academy’s supervisory commission rejected his nomination, along with those of several other prominent reformers. Two days later, Sakharov’s colleagues at the Lebedev Institute of Physics protested that
decision, voting by a margin of 1,543 to 22 to support his candidacy. They also drafted a letter condemning the academy’s selection process as “a breach of both the spirit and letter” of the new law. Then, on Jan. 22, at a
stormy public meeting attended by an overflow crowd of more than 1,000 people, Sakharov was nominated as a candidate for a different section of the congress, in which he would sit as a representative for the region of Moscow.
Such controversy is typical of the ambivalent attitude of Soviet authorities toward Sakharov. In the past two years, some of his views— particularly his praise of Gorbachev’s efforts at political and economic reform—have been accorded prominent coverage in the Soviet media. Most importantly, the Kremlin has finally allowed Sakharov to travel abroad, after years of refusing him permission on the grounds that he had worked as a nuclear physicist on the
hydrogen bomb and was in possession of state secrets. Sakharov made his first-ever trip to the West last year when he visited the United States and France. In Canada later this month on his second trip, Sakharov, accompanied by Bonner, will be given a humanitarian award— and $20,000—by the St. Boniface Hospital Research Foundation, and receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Ottawa. He and Bonner are also likely to meet with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and External Affairs Minister Joe Clark.
But despite such newfound freedoms, Sakharov’s critical remarks about Gorbachev’s government, made both at home and abroad, have not been reported by the Soviet media. At a conference in Moscow last November, he told
a combined U.S. and Soviet audience that Gorbachev’s planned changes to the government structure would give him too much power and, therefore, would be “extremely dangerous for the fate of the country.” Commented one Soviet newspaper reporter: “Even with glasnost, we simply do not carry direct criticism of the leader.”
Last week, however, Sakharov’s electoral platform, which supports complete freedom of movement and association, the introduction of a market economy and opening of KGB secret police archives to the public, was published for the first time. But his nomination rebuff by the Academy of Sciences makes it unlikely that he will be elected as a deputy. Sakharov’s supporters say that the complex wording of some rules could be interpreted to disqualify his candidacy. And if he is permitted to run, he could face direct opposition from such formidable candidates as Boris Yeltsin, a popular reformer and former Moscow Communist party leader, and Vitaly Vorotnikov, a Politburo member and presi-
dent of the Russian republic.
Still, Sakharov and Bonner are clearly unbowed by the challenge. One work associate of Sakharov’s described his recent mood as “very determined.” Said the associate: “He will speak out as long as he can—and as long as someone will listen.” Sakharov, meanwhile, told the Western media that the policy of perestroika (restructuring) is “absolutely necessary,” and added, “There is no other solution.” Clearly, Sakharov has decided that the best hope for reform rests in testing its limits—and then pushing beyond them.
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