Dust-covered and disgruntled coal miners across the Soviet Union sounded a note of alarm in the Kremlin last week. From the Donetsk Basin in eastern Ukraine to the coalfields of western Siberia, they laid down their tools at more than 50 mines, demanding higher wages, more soap—and a radical change in the country’s political leadership. The strike threatened to add late-winter fuel shortages to a countrywide list of scarcities. And that eruption of working-class discontent could further undermine Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as he engages in a bitter power struggle with restive, independenceminded republics. Even as the miners were walking off their jobs last week, Latvians and Estonians were voting in favor of independence from the Soviet Union. Gorbachev dismissed those plebiscites as illegal. Instead, he urged citizens nationwide to vote for a renewed Soviet federation in a March 17 referendum. And Gorbachev, by actively campaigning for the people’s vote, has inextricably tied his personal prestige to an affirmative response.
The Soviet president is attaching great importance to the national vote. Last week, he described it as nothing less than a vote on preserving the union. In late February, during
his first domestic excursion from Moscow in six months, he began an election-style campaign by visiting the Byelorussian capital of Minsk. In tour stops that included a visit to the V. I. Lenin Tractor Works, Gorbachev renewed his pledge to maintain the Soviet Union’s current borders. And he accused his archrival, Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin, and other reformers of fomenting unrest. Declared Gorbachev: “The democrats are striving for power. They have decided to use what some analysts define as neo-Bolshevist tactics. It is the transition of the struggle to the streets: organizing demonstrations, rallies, strikes and hunger strikes.” Gorbachev urged Soviet citizens not to support the reformers but, instead, to respond positively to his $76-million question—the estimated cost of staging the countrywide referendum. That question: “Do you consider it necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal, sovereign republics in which human rights and freedoms of all nationalities will be fully guaranteed?” The independent weekly Moscow News said that, given the weakened state of the nation, “we will be asked to buy an obviously sick horse, with the promise that it will be cured and will win races some day.” Still, most ana-
lysts predict that Gorbachev will win the vote, citing factors that range from the Communist party’s energetic promotion of the referendum to many voters’ fears of further political chaos.
Even while Gorbachev sought public support for his vision of a united Soviet Union, he was also reinforcing his already strong executive powers. Last week, the Soviet parliament approved eight of Gorbachev’s nine handpicked nominees to the Security Council, a powerful inner cabinet that will meet daily to advise the Soviet president on defence, foreign and economic policies. The council has only one known reformer, former cabinet minister Vadim Bakatin, in a lineup of conservatives that includes Interior Minister Boris Pugo and Defence Minister Dmitri Yazov.
The growing influence of hard-liners, however, has provoked open opposition among reformers and many workers. Although the miners had immediate demands last week, including monetary benefits and more basic consumer goods, their strike also had a political dimension. Under the direction of the Independent Union of Miners, an 80,000-member body that was formed last fall to replace docile staterun unions, the strikers are openly siding with Gorbachev's rival Yeltsin. They have expressed support for the Russian leader’s recent demand that Gorbachev resign. Gorbachev’s response: a pointed warning that the Soviet Union would plunge into civil war if Yeltsin-led democrats were to succeed in forcing him from office.
The March 17 referendum has become the key issue in the power struggle between the central government and the 15 Soviet republics. All of them have announced their intentions to gain more powers, or outright independence, from Moscow. And six, including the three Baltic states, have refused to participate in the referendum at all because they say that doing so would compromise their intentions to break free of the Soviet Union.
The Baltic republics, in effect, have already mailed in their responses to Moscow’s referendum. In their republic-wide polls early last week, an overwhelming majority—74 per cent in Latvia and 78 per cent in Estonia—voted in favor of regaining the national autonomy that they lost in 1940, when the Soviet Union forcibly annexed them. The results mirrored a similar vote in Lithuania on Feb. 9, when 90 per cent voted in favor of independence. In both Estonia and Latvia, a sizable number of ethnic Russians, who make up about 30 per cent of the population in both republics, supported the independence drive. Said Latvian Vice-President Andrejs Krastins: “Non-Latvians have proved that they
were with the Latvian nation and are supporting the cause of independence.”
Meanwhile, Moldova and the Transcaucasus republics of Armenia and Georgia have rejected any voting in the unity referendum in their territories. Georgian legislators said last month that the republic’s voters had twice indicated their preference for independence— shortly before a Soviet takeover in 1921, and in 1990 elections that installed an independence-seeking government. “Mindful of this,” they declared in a legislative statement, “the Georgian people are not facing the problem of holding a referendum on the future of the Soviet Union.”
In the face of such defiance,
Gorbachev has described the six republics’ stand as unlawful. And he dismissed the enormous shows of support for Baltic independence as nothing more than sociological surveys that were invalid under prevailing Soviet law.
Kremlin loyalists, meanwhile, have expressed their determination to conduct referendums within the independence-leaning republics—at least in such proMoscow strongholds as Baltic army bases. In Russia itself, the largest and most populous of the Soviet republics, Gorbachev will face an oblique challenge to his leadership during the all-union referendum. Yeltsin’s supporters in the Russian legislature did not try to block the referendum from taking place. But they did add another question to the ballot, one that asks if voters want the republic’s president to be elected by popular vote.
Gorbachev has shown little enthusiasm for such a test. But Yeltsin, who has consistently topped polls as the Soviet Union’s most popular politician, stressed his readiness to stand before the voters. Declared Yeltsin last week: “The question of who is going to be leader of Russia should not be settled behind closed doors. The electorate can decide this best of all.”
Russian approval for a popularly elected leader would aid Yeltsin in the so-called war of the presidents, the intensely personal power struggle between the Russian leader and Gorbachev. That conflict intensified on Feb. 19 when, in a nationwide television broadcast, Yeltsin accused Gorbachev of instituting a dictatorship and called on him to resign. In response, Gorbachev’s supporters in the Rus-
sian legislature—which appointed Yeltsin to his current post last year by a four-vote margin—succeeded in arranging a special session of the People’s Congress of Deputies, an electoral assembly that picks the members of the legislature and has the power to remove the leader from office.
But pro-Yeltsin legislators achieved a significant tactical victory of their own when they managed to delay the start of the special session until after the March 17 referendum. Their reasoning: the voters’ expected preference for a popularly elected president would help Yeltsin to ward off any legislative attempts to oust him from office.
In any event, Moscowbased economist Viktor Sheinis predicts that most voters will favor a renewed, if still undefined, Soviet Union. Sheinis and other analysts, however, say that the Kremlin-sponsored poll will not end the sharp power struggles between the centre and the =3 republics—and between Yeltsin and Gorbachev. Nor will it help the Soviet president to solve the country’s desperate economic problems. Said Moscow-based miners’ spokesman Pavel Shuspanov: “Miners have run out of patience with the way they are living. Even the most basic goods are in short supply.” As a result, even if Gorbachev wins the referendum, his political fate may still be ultimately decided by his ability to provide bars of soap.
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