Mikhail Gorbachev was at his flexible best in Oslo last week as he belatedly accepted his Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for his part in ending the Cold War. In the course of a statesmanlike address, Gorbachev managed to threaten the West even as he begged for its money. “If perestroika fails,” he declared, “the prospect of entering a new peaceful period in history will vanish, at least for the foreseeable future.” Domestic turmoil had prevented the Soviet leader from collecting his prize in the Norwegian capital last Dec.
10—and his eventual appearance was overshadowed by fresh concern about military action in the Baltics last week.
There, Soviet soldiers who were searching for army deserters briefly set up checkpoints in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, prompting Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis to speculate that a military crackdown might occur during Gorbachev’s absence. But Gorbachev spokesman Vitaly Ignatenko said that Landsbergis was simply trying to embarrass the Soviet president. “Every time relations with the West start looking better,” added Ignatenko, “Landsbergis does something like this.”
In his Nobel speech, Gorbachev again endorsed sweeping political and economic reforms for his disintegrating empire in a clear bid to improve his relations with Western leaders, many of whom had expressed concern about the Soviet president’s apparent shift to the right in recent months. And he played down the significance of his tactical swings between the conservative and reform camps. Said Gorbachev: “Jumping to conclusions after every step taken by the Soviet leadership, after every decree by the president, trying to figure out whether he is moving left or right, backward or forward, would be an exercise in futility.”
In any event, there were signs last week that Western leaders were still banking on the Soviet leader. British officials said that Prime Minister John Major was expected to invite Gorbachev to meet with leaders of the Group of Seven industrial nations after their summit in London next month. And President George Bush named 72-year-old Robert Strauss, a businessman, lawyer and Democratic strategist, as Soviet ambassador. The nomination of Bush’s close friend, a renowned deal-maker,
was an apparent signal not only that the White House placed a high value on U.S.-Soviet relations, but also that it was intent on helping the Communists down a more capitalistic road.
Western leaders are clearly concerned about Gorbachev’s commitment to reform. Last October, he rejected a radical economic program that would have privatized the beleaguered
Soviet economy within a mere 500 days. And in January, a bungled military crackdown against independence drives in the Baltics tarnished Gorbachev’s Nobel award and left 21 people dead in Latvia and Lithuania. Western expressions of outrage over that action helped to delay a U.S.-Soviet summit that is now scheduled to be held in Moscow in late June or early July. And even as Gorbachev’s representatives toured London, Washington and other Western capitals in search of economic aid, there were
clear signs that conservative elements in such still-strong institutions as the KGB, the army and the Communist party continue to exert a powerful influence on Kremlin policy.
For one thing, the hard-line policy that Gorbachev repeatedly enunciated last fall and winter—keeping the Soviet Union intact at all costs—surfaced again in an official Soviet report on the bloodshed in Lithuania. According to dozens of Western reporters who were in Vilnius last January, Soviet soldiers opened fire on a crowd of unarmed protesters who had surrounded a television centre. Despite those eyewitness accounts, however, and photographs showing one of the protesters being crushed by a tank, Soviet prosecutor Gen. Nikolai Trubin concluded last week that the paratroopers who stormed the TV tower were not responsible for the deaths of 13 civilians and one KGB officer. According to Trubin, Lithuanian militants armed with automatic weapons killed six people, while other victims in the crowd fell under tanks. Angered Lithuanian nationalists accused Kremlin officials of timing the investigation’s release in order to shield Gorbachev from criticism in Oslo, and Landsbergis warned that the report would directly encourage the Soviet military to engage in such actions again.
Gorbachev himself has avoided comment on that report—and its disturbing implications that Kremlin conservatives still have the power to cover up the actions of an army that is ostensibly under his control. Still, some of Gorbachev’s most persistent critics, including Russian republic leader Boris Yeltsin, say that the Soviet president recently reforged an alliance with reformers in the 15 republics—once he realized that he could not govern without them. According to Yeltsin, democratic forces, including members of the republican parliaments and the organizers of a crippling nationwide coal miners’ strike, halted the conservatives’ so-called winter assault to reassert central control. In a recent interview in the government daily newspaper Izvestia, Yeltsin said: “Gorbachev finally understood that he could not act at all without support from the left.”
As envoys from the Kremlin shuttle between Western capitals, the depth of the Soviet leader’s commitment to economic change is one of the key factors for potential donors as they consider the size and type of any aid program. In his Nobel Prize address, Gorbachev proffered a plea wrapped in a threat: help pay for the Soviets’ economic transformation or risk the consequences of a nuclear power dissolving into civil chaos. But in the best traditions of the marketplace, both sides must still agree on an acceptable price.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.