For a moment, as he examined the crowd inside the Kremlin’s Palace of Congresses on the morning of May 25, Mikhail Gorbachev appeared flustered. During the first-ever meeting of the country’s new Congress of People’s Deputies, the Soviet leader had asked the deputies to vote on his proposed agenda for the session. After calling for anyone opposed to raise his hand,
Gorbachev began counting them aloud. He reached 31 and then, with a few hundred hands still raised, gave up and ordered congress officials to make a row-by-row count. After a delay of more than 10 minutes, the frustrated leader promised to install an electronic counting system in the Kremlin “very soon.” That was not necessary in the past, when Soviet leaders traditionally demanded—and received—unanimity. But now, after 379 delegates voted against his agenda, Gorbachev urged delegates to be patient with his reforms. Said Gorbachev: “The path to democratization will have delays, both large and small.”
In fact, the Soviet Union’s march toward political democracy included both heady moments and imposing obstacles last week. The historic congress offered tangible proof of the success of Gorbachev’s policy of encouraging glasnost, or increased openness. At the same time, some of the more impatient reformers suffered a political setback. Earlier, not far from the Kremlin, antiriot police had surrounded and forcibly broken up a political meeting attended by about 2,000 people. On the previous weekend, more than 10,000 people had attended a meeting in which some speakers publicly called for Gorbachev to be replaced as president by Boris Yeltsin, a populist reformer who has publicly criticized Kremlin policies. And on May 26 in Tbilisi, the capital of the Soviet republic of Georgia, several hundred thousand Georgians demanding independence held the first mass rallies since Soviet troops, using poison gas, broke up a demonstration on April 9, killing 21 people. Such protests, along with the contentious congress sessions, dem-
onstrated the deep-seated resentment and frustration that many Soviets plainly feel as the country’s nationalist tensions and consumer crisis deepen. And at week’s end, some of Gorbachev’s radical opponents became even more outspoken in their criticisms.
The meeting of congress, which was sup-
posed to last just four hours on two days, became so animated that sessions ran more than 10 hours daily and were extended into this week. Broadcast live on Soviet television and radio, the unprecedented debates included direct challenges to Gorbachev’s leadership and blunt criticism of some of his policies. Although he was eventually elected to a five-year term as president—by a margin of 2,123 to 87— delegates first held a lengthy debate over his candidacy and pressed him into defending his record. Deputy Andrei Sakharov, the human rights activist, praised Gorbachev but added, “He has to report on what he has done in the past four years—on the progress and the mistakes.”
Those were not the only headaches confronting Gorbachev. An unexpected diplomatic dispute with Britain, sparked by London’s expulsion on May 19 of 11 Soviets amid allegations of spying, escalated into a potentially serious rift in the two countries’ previously warm relations. The next day, Moscow retaliated by ordering eight British diplomats and three journalists to leave the Soviet Union. “I am saddest of all for the Soviet Union,” said one of the expelled journalists, Jeremy Harris of the BBC. “Because all these developments seem to indicate that, despite all the changes we write about and praise, a lot of the old thinking is still about.” Clearly annoyed, British government officials indicated that a historic visit by Queen Elizabeth to Moscow planned for next year may now be in jeopardy. And within the Kremlin, a bitter controversy erupted after two public prosecutors alleged that Yegor Ligachev, the Politburo’s leading conservative, was involved in a corruption case.
Both inside and outside the congress, the Kremlin leadership faced new evidence of rising nationalist tensions in the three Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, as well as large-scale protest movements in the republics of Georgia and Armenia. One Estonian deputy, Maiju Lauristin—a member of the grassroots Popular Front—asked Gorbachev, “Are you prepared to grant the Baltic republics their independence?” Gorbachev did not answer. Later, Lithuanian deputies threatened to boycott voting for the new 542-member Supreme Soviet because of a dispute over how each republic’s delegation to that smaller, more powerful legislature would be chosen. That led Gorbachev to postpone the vote, declaring a “crisis situation.”
But after resolving such disputes, voting for the Supreme Soviet by secret ballot began late on May 26. In results announced the next day, the congress elected several leading Baltic nationalists. But several radical reformers representing other constituencies—surprisingly including Yeltsin, the widely popular Moscow candidate—suffered defeat. An ally of the defeated radical group, historian Yuri Afanasyev,
who himself was not nominated for the Supreme Soviet, later openly charged that Gorbachev had influenced the congress to vote against the radicals. In an unprecedented attack on the voting process, Afanasyev said that the results will leave the nation with a Stalinisttype legislature. That charge, and similar criticism from other speakers, prompted rounds of applause.
At other times, the emotional sessions appeared to approach pandemonium. Many speeches were accompanied by heckling and hissing. Some eager deputies strode spontaneously to the podium and began speaking; one did so just as Gorbachev was standing up to speak at a second podium. “Just a moment, I have not given you the floor,” snapped the Soviet leader. “I will give it to you, but you have to ask for it.”
In fact, Gorbachev often moved unilaterally to direct the course of the sessions. When Sakharov began discussing Gorbachev’s leadership in an early speech, the Soviet leader interrupted, declaring a five-minute limit on remarks. Later, however, a speaker praising Gorbachev was allowed nearly 10 minutes. Sometimes, while chairing the sessions, Gorbachev told deputies his opinion of proposed legislation just before they voted. And at one point, he hastily rejected a proposal to install additional microphones for deputies, declaring, “Let us not turn this into a bazaar.”
Still, his willingness to allow direct criticism astonished many observers. Said one Western
diplomat: “He is permitting things to be said publicly that once, even in private, might have cost people their lives.” Gorbachev even invited deputies to “ask me whatever you wish to know about my private life”—and several accepted his offer. At various times, they criticized Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa, for playing too prominent a public role, and suggested that he has improperly used his position to have the state give him a “huge dacha,” or country house. In an emotional response in which his voice occasionally trembled, Gorbachev declared, “I have no such thing and I want no such thing.”
He added, “I am a man who devotes his life to working for the state.”
Still, he was spared a more difficult challenge. Although his election as president was initially regarded as a formality, a series of deputies made speeches before his nomination saying that it would be improper for him to hold the two titles of general secretary of the Communist party and Soviet president. Other deputies nominated Yeltsin to run against Gorbachev. Yeltsin, a onetime Gorbachev protégé who was fired as Moscow party chief in 1987 for his ultrareformist rhetoric, declined to run. In a recent interview with The Washington Post,
Yeltsin said Gorbachev’s leadership suffers from “inconsistency, indecisiveness, halfmeasures and a susceptibility to pressure from the right.”
Despite his overwhelming election, Gorbachev faces troubling signs of divisions among reformers who have provided the base of his support. During the congress, deputies from the Moscow wing clashed openly with Baltic deputies over their nationalist stand. Some of the country’s best-known reformers offered only muted support for Gorbachev’s leadership. But, said Estonia’s Lauristin, “he has no serious opposition.” The 68-year-old Sakharov—another reformer who was not nominated to the Supreme Soviet—abstained in the balloting for the presidency when Gorbachev ran unopposed. Earlier, he said that he would not oppose Gorbachev because “I do not see another person who could lead the country at this time.” But as Gorbachev moves the Soviet Union toward increased democracy, he will now have to demonstrate that, for a leader, it is better to be the best choice than the only one.
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