Anthony Wilson-Smith October 10 1988



Anthony Wilson-Smith October 10 1988




The speaker was largely unknown, but his dramatic announcement confirmed his new importance. Less than two hours after a hastily called meeting of the Soviet Central Committee last week, Vadim Medvedev, a 59-year-old secretary of the committee, mounted a podium at the Foreign Ministry Press Centre and blinked several times against the unaccustomed glare of television lights. Then, reading from a prepared text in a flat and emotionless voice, he declared, “The Central

Committee plenum has to_

day met the requests of a number of party leaders to be relieved of their posts in connection with their retirement on pensions.” With that bland declaration by Medvedev, who also announced his own promotion into the powerful Politburo,

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made public one of the most sweeping changes ever undertaken in the Soviet Union’s command structure.

The bloodless purge resulted in the retirement of several senior officials, including President Andrei Gromyko, 79, who was nominally the highest-ranking official in government. One day later, Gorbachev, who already held the rank of

general secretary of the Communist party, was also elected president in a unanimous vote of the Supreme Soviet, the country’s parliament. Several other high-ranking officials regarded as opponents of Gorbachev’s programs, including Kremlin second-in-command Yegor Ligachev, were shuffled to less important positions. About 20 departments, which oversaw most major policy areas and were run by the Central Committee, will be cut and merged into six commissions. Declared Medvedev: “A considerable amount of real political power is being transferred to the local level.”

The moves were generally applauded in Western capitals. Describing Gorbachev as a “strong and determined person,” U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz said that “if there is any message in this, it is that he intends to pursue [his reform] program.” And at home, Vaino Vailas, the Estonian Communist party leader, said that the shuffle “once again confirmed the party’s course toward radical change.” Gorbachev himself, upon accepting the presidency, pledged “energetic and decisive steps” to further his economic restructuring program, which he said would

“put the country on a modem level, to achieve a substantial improvement in the lives of the people.”

Certainly the scope and speed of the changes established the growing power that Gorbachev commands. Since winning approval for widespread reforms at an extraordinary Communist party conference last June, a series of problems have been slowing down the pace of changes. Soviet leadership in Moscow has been increasingly challenged by nationalist movements in Armenia and the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. As well, there is widespread frustration over the _ apparent slowness of Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika (economic reform) in improving living standards.

There has also been anger over countrywide food shortages. In a speech in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, last month, after residents complained frequently and loudly about such shortages, Gorbachev conceded, “The most acute of current problems, comrades, is the supply of food.”

a Against that gloomy backst drop, it seemed unlikely that § Gorbachev would take the 2 offensive so decisively. Liga| chev, who was regarded as I the Soviet Union’s most z powerful conservative, had § been on vacation for about s three weeks when the

Kremlin announced that an “extraordinary” meeting of the Central Committee would be held in 48 hours. Foreign Minister Eduard Schevardnadze, a close ally of Gorbachev, cut short a visit to the United Nations in New York City and returned to Moscow, as did an unspecified number of ambassadors who are also Central Committee members.

The outcome of the meeting, in which 300 delegates took less than an hour to unanimously approve the changes, was devastating to conservatives. Said one Moscow-based Western diplomat: “Gorbachev has swept them into positions where they are far less likely to be able to hurt him.” Ligachev, who previously held the powerful ideology portfolio, was moved to agriculture at a time when the Soviet Union is suffering from its worst harvest in many years. Viktor Chebrikov, an opponent of Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) policy, was replaced as head of the 700,000member KGB security police by Vladimir Kryuchkov and named director of a new party commission on legal affairs.

Anatoly Dobrynin, a former ambassador to the United States and a Leonid Brezhnev confidant who two years ago became head of the Central Committee’s international policy department, retired. Medvedev, formerly responsible for relations with Eastern Bloc allies,, who moves into a voting position on the Politburo without a stint as a nonvoting member, said that Dobrynin “requested to retire for reasons of age and health.” He added, “There is nothing else to it.”

At the same time, four of the six officials who will run the Central Committee departments are regarded as Gorbachev protégés—including key adviser Alexander Yakovlev, the former ambassador to Canada who will direct a commission on international relations.

Still, the manner of the changes showed that Gorbachev’s glasnost policy has limits. Despite the scope of the changes, Medvedev conceded that there was little discussion during voting. The Soviet media, which gave only perfunctory advance notice of the meeting, provided no immediate opinion or analysis of the changes. Vremya, the evening news program watched by an audience estimated at over 100 million, devoted much of its coverage to Gor5 bachev’s praise of Gromyko ö upon his retirement. The country’s largest newspapers, including Pravda, Izvestia and Sovetskaya Rossiya, published reports of the changes that were identically worded and laid out, highlighting the text of Gorbachev’s remarks. For their part, many ordinary Soviets seemed bemused or indifferent to the changes. Declared Natasha, a 25-year-old housewife: “Nothing changes for us. The stores are still empty.”

In fact, some of the haste of Gorbachev’s measures likely is a result of the increasing perception that the quality of the average Soviet’s lifestyle has declined in recent years. During his recent visit to Siberia, Gorbachev, who frequently plunged into waiting crowds, was assailed by complaints about food and housing shortages, poor working conditions and the inefficiency of many government programs. At one such meeting, Gorbachev declared, “Every leader would like to open a box and offer the people the contents, but we have nothing to open.” But such meetings made a profound impact. Declared Medvedev: “I believe that the impressions which Mikhail Gorbachev brought from his trip to Krasnoyarsk confirmed the need for serious measures.”

The general feeling of frustration is heightened by figures indicating that the amount of food available in state-owned stores has declined in the past two years, while prices for many of the goods still available have increased sharply. A government study recently showed that the average Soviet family spends 59 per cent of its budget on food, compared with about 15 per cent in Canada and the United States. Although the Soviet Union does not formally acknowledge that it has inflation, another study recently

showed that the ruble now has less than half its value in 1960—and there has been no offsetting increase in incomes.

Many Soviet consumers are clearly becoming impatient at new shortages, which even affect Moscow, traditionally the country’s most privileged city. At the Gastronom grocery store last week on Moscow’s Kutuzovsky Prospekt, in an affluent area less than 200 m from the apartments that once housed Soviet leaders Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov, supplies of meat, dairy products and poultry were all scarce. Coffee and sugar were also unavailable. And many of those items that were available were inedible: Pravda reported in August that 25 per cent of eggs sold in state stores were unfit to eat. At the counter where wine was supposed to be sold, only fruit juice and Pepsi-Cola were on display. Declared Tanya, a 20-year-old college student: “There is not enough food, and it is getting worse.”

Outside Moscow, many items require rationing coupons—when they are available at all. The weekly newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti reported recently that in the town of Kostroma, 300 km northeast of Moscow, meat coupons are no longer offered because “meat is generally not on sale.” A famous local brand of cheese is only sold at one shop, which is restricted to war invalids and veterans.

For his part, Gorbachev and his supporters claim that similar shortages existed under previous leaders and now receive attention

because of his glasnost policy. In a speech last month to a group that included many Soviet newspaper editors, an exasperated Gorbachev declared, “According to some articles, one may gather the impression that perestroika has nearly aggravated the state of affairs in the economy, disrupted finances and worsened the supply of food and goods.” He added, “Why ascribe to perestroika what was connected with the preceding period ?”

A large part of Gorbachev's problem lies in attempting to vanquish a bureaucratic system that is legendary for its ability to delay work. In one celebrated incident at Moscow’s Demodyedovo airport last month, more than 100 passengers on a domestic Aeroflot flight were kept waiting more than eight hours because no luggage loaders could be found. When the loaders finally appeared, the two

pilots of the aircraft booked off for the day, telling passengers that their work shift had ended. The passengers, who demanded a refund, were refused by an airline official who told them, “No regulation provides compensation payment because of a shortage of loaders.” The passengers then staged a sit-down strike on board the aircraft until the following day, when a new crew agreed to fly them out. Declared one enraged passenger, identified only as Z. Samigoull, in an interview with Pravda. “The anti-perestroika forces must be firmly implanted among Demodyedovo airport’s service employees.”

Faced with those difficulties, many people say that Gorbachev’s aggressive push for change has taken on new urgency. Said a Western diplomat: “It is not enough to keep blaming the previous regime. He must now make things better.” Gorbachev appears to agree with that philosophy. After his election as president, he said, “Perestroika now has entered a new and crucial phase, one of practical progress.” Even after last week’s tactical triumphs, that may prove to be the most difficult challenge of all.


with DIANNE RINEHART in Moscow