WORLD

PEOPLE’S CHOICE

SOVIETS VOTED FOR CHANGE BUT REMAIN UNCERTAIN HOW MUCH POWER THEIR NEW DEPUTIES WILL WIELD

Anthony Wilson-Smith April 10 1989
WORLD

PEOPLE’S CHOICE

SOVIETS VOTED FOR CHANGE BUT REMAIN UNCERTAIN HOW MUCH POWER THEIR NEW DEPUTIES WILL WIELD

Anthony Wilson-Smith April 10 1989

PEOPLE’S CHOICE

SOVIETS VOTED FOR CHANGE BUT REMAIN UNCERTAIN HOW MUCH POWER THEIR NEW DEPUTIES WILL WIELD

WORLD

At the polling station inside General High School No. 178 in southwestBern Moscow, Dr. Valentina Aggababova sat on a windowsill waiting to vote. It was election day, 1989, and 1,500 seats in the newly created Congress of People’s Deputies were at stake. With three people ahead in the lineup at her booth, Aggababova, who had been given her ballot form in advance, made her choice in public—she voted for Boris Yeltsin, a colorful political maverick who has openly criticized the ruling Politburo. In the Soviet Union’s first national election since 1917 to offer a choice of candidates, Aggababova, who is in her mid-50s, was visibly pleased. “The quality of our leaders will be better because there will be more variety,” she said. “There will be real democracy.” As results from the March 26 election rolled in last week, it became clear that millions of Soviets share that desire for change. With sometimes stunning vehemence, voters defeated dozens of senior Communist party and government

leaders across the country—even crossing out the names of some who ran unopposed.

In general, Soviet voters repudiated OldGuard Communists who had appeared resistant to the reform programs—particularly the economic restructuring called perestroika—of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Among the most prominent casualties: Georgy Arbatov,

head of the Institute of USA and Canada Studies, and Yuri Solovyev, a nonvoting member of the Politburo. Other losers included Moscow Mayor Valery Saikin, five regional party chairmen in the Ukraine, and high-ranking Communist leaders in Leningrad and Kiev. At the same time, voters elected many reform-minded candidates, including Yeltsin, who won a startling 89 per cent of the vote (page 20). Said Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist party: “Voters did not simply vote, as they did in the past, but they really made a choice.” So surprising was their choice that, afterward, Gorbachev assured a conference of Soviet editors that there was no cause for alarm. “If party and state organs or individual leading members were criticized,” he declared, “then it was because perestroika is going too slowly.”

Still, Soviet democracy has strict limitations. It remains unclear how effectively the new legislature will function. In addition, one-third of the 2,250 seats in the new Congress had already been allotted to such officially recog-

nized Soviet organizations as the Communist party and trade unions. And among those who did face the electorate last week, an estimated 80 per cent were registered Communist party members, and formal opposition parties were not permitted. As Gorbachev answered questions from journalists on the day of the vote, he said, “Alternative parties by themselves are not a panacea for solving problems.”

But in the restless Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, candidates from grassroots groups resembling political parties—and advocating far greater autonomy from Moscow—swept to resounding victories. Sajudis, the Lithuanian reform movement, won about three-quarters of the republic’s 42 seats in the new Congress. It defeated Lithuania’s

president and premier, two vice-premiers, the minister of justice, two Communist party secretaries and a planning commission chairman. Leaders of the Popular Front groups in Estonia and Latvia were also easily elected over officials of the Communist party.

In Armenia, voters expressed their discontent with local authorities by staying away from the polls. While the turnout in some parts of the Soviet Union ran as high as 95 per cent of the electorate, only 53 per cent of voters in the Armenian capital of Yerevan went to the polls. Sources in Yerevan said that the boycott was

organized to protest a nightly curfew that has been in effect since residents staged massive demonstrations last year demanding the return of the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan. Significantly, the only Yerevan district with a voter turnout above 80 per cent included candidate Karen Simonian, a wellknown Armenian intellectual considered to be the only reformer among registered candidates. In an interview with Maclean ’s, Simonian declared, “This election is an important beginning, but we have a long way to go to rid our people of their slave mentality.” Significant results elsewhere across the country included the defeat of key Communist and government representatives in constituencies where they were sometimes the only candidates registered. The new Soviet electoral law requires successful candidates to win more than 50 per cent of votes cast. That meant that unopposed candidates could be defeated if more than 50 per cent of voters crossed their names off the ballots—a practice that was used to defeat a number of candidates including Solovyev, the Politburo candidate member from Leningrad. Said a Moscow-based Western diplomat: “It is hard to imagine the public shame of running against yourself— and losing.”

In 275 of the 1,500 constituencies, no candidate won enough votes for election. In 199 of those ridings, where only one or two candidates were running, new candidates will be nominated for another round of elections on May 14. In the other memberless ridings, where more than two candidates splintered the vote, runoff elections between the two highest vote-getters will be held. That system applied to candidates from official organizations. After the directors of the Academy of Sciences did not nominate physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov as a candidate, Sakharov supporters at the academy garnered enough votes against some candidates to deny them the 50-per-cent support they needed. As a result, some of the academy’s 25 seats have not been filled—and Sakharov may yet be nominated when new elections are held.

For many Soviets, the opportunity to vote meaningfully aroused both delight and skepticism. In a telling reminder of previous times, Soviet television showed documentary film footage of the 1937 election, when each riding had only one candidate—and all candidates running were reported to have received 99 per

cent of the vote. Despite Gorbachev’s wideranging reforms in recent years, some Soviets remained suspicious of the political process. In the final days before the vote, rumors circulated among Yeltsin supporters that the absentee votes of all soldiers and diplomats would be cast in Moscow—with instructions that they be cast for Yeltsin’s opponent. As well, said Vladimir Maksimov, a janitor in an apartment complex, “My friend’s children were told at school to tell their parents not to vote for Yeltsin, and he was told that at his factory, too.”

Yeltsin supporters, however, were in no mood to be intimidated. They claim to have collected 12,000 signatures on a petition accusing one of his Politburo detractors of slander. And pasted on a wall at the Proletarskaya Metro station in Moscow, a typed verse called for voters to turn out “the shameless fat cows, special lackeys, brownnosers and dish-lickers” opposing Yeltsin.

Even after the vote, it was not clear how much power the new deputies will actually wield. They will meet only once a year. At that time, they will elect a smaller group of deputies to a reorganized Supreme Soviet, which will function as a full-time legislative body. Gorbachev has said that every member of the Congress should spend one year of his five-year term serving on the Supreme Soviet, but the order of selection of delegates is uncertain. And some critics have complained that the new system gives the leader too much power. Gorbachev now holds the positions of both general

secretary of the Communist party and titular head of state, or president. The latter is now largely a ceremonial position, but the country’s new constitution has re-created the post with enhanced powers—and the Congress of People’s Deputies is expected to tap Gorbachev to fill the job.

At the same time, it was uncertain whether the defeat of some senior party and government officials would prove largely symbolic. Although such officials lost their bids to become deputies, they still hold their previous positions. Following the vote, some Soviet observers suggested that losing candidates should consider giving up those posts as well. Soviet foreign ministry spokesman Gennady Gerasimov told reporters only that local party organizations will “conduct a

review” of why their candidates were defeated.

Gorbachev will doubtless continue to argue that their defeat means that voters are impatient with the slow pace of perestroika. The leader’s programs have recently been under attack from some conservatives, and many observers maintained that the election results would give those reforms new impetus. Still, Gorbachev faces a formidable task. Many Soviets say that the country’s traditional chronic shortages of food and consumer items are now worse than ever. Gorbachev himself has conceded that the Soviet Union is at least five years away from providing the country with self-sufficiency in food supplies. Until that time, many analysts predict a further drop in Soviet living standards.

In light of those harsh forecasts, one Western diplomat said the election campaign was useful because it “gave the people somewhere to focus their frustrations.” Now, the envoy added, Gorbachev “must find a new target for those emotions.” Gorbachev, meanwhile, said last week that he hopes to further expand his campaign for democratization. “No campaign from above,” he declared, “can decide the country’s destiny.” As they step uncertainly toward political democracy, many Soviets may discover that their new responsibilities bring not only the exhilaration of wielding their voting power, but also more dissatisfaction.

CAREY GOLDBERG

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH with CAREY GOLDBERG in Moscow