Anthony Wilson-Smith December 12 1988



Anthony Wilson-Smith December 12 1988




Inside the Kremlin’s cavernous St. George’s Hall, delegates whispered excitedly among themselves. Spectators, jamming the gallery, peered down anxiously through binoculars. It was shortly after noon last Thursday, and the 1,500 deputies of the Supreme Soviet had just taken part in an unprecedented—and unexpected—display of democracy. The overwhelming majority had approved constitutional resolutions, proposed and propelled by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, that effectively eliminated their positions by abolishing the Supreme Soviet in its present form. Even more dramatically, five deputies had rebuffed Gorbachev by voting against the amendments— ignoring the Soviet Union’s once-sacred tradition of public unanimity—while another 27 deputies abstained. But when Gorbachev stepped to the podium, his tone was decidedly conciliatory. “All of us are in a school of democracy,” declared the Soviet leader, “and we should be good pupils.” With the passage of sweeping changes to the Soviet Union’s electoral system, Gorbachev made significant and historic progress toward that goal.

High-profile: Gorbachev paved the way for the creation next year of newly elected bodies that would give the country more elected deputies than ever before. At the same time, he managed to entrench and increase his own power by constitutionally increasing the power of the president, a post he holds along with his position as general secretary of the Communist party. “He has created the impression,” said a Moscow-based Western diplomat, “of giving everyone new power—including himself.” With those political accomplishments behind him, the Soviet leader was preparing to take off this

week on a high-profile, nine-day trip to the United States, Cuba and Britain. At the United Nations, he was widely expected to make a major announcement on Moscow’s intention to improve its position on human rights, and the journey seemed certain to burnish his already shiny image abroad (page 30).

But Gorbachev’s travels were also plainly designed to distract attention from a gathering storm of internal troubles. With his momentous experiments in perestroika (economic reform) and glasnost (openness), the Soviet leader has helped to unleash a torrent of emotions in far-flung sectors of the 15republic Soviet Union (page 31). The Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithua-

nia continued their drive for greater autonomy. Two weeks ago, the rebellious Estonian legislature passed a resolution declaring the republic to be “sovereign.” Acid: At the three-day Supreme Soviet session last week, many Estonian delegates abandoned their expressed intention to vote against Gorbachev’s constitutional amendments only after the Soviet leader pledged that he would hold future talks on increased autonomy. Baltic residents and exiles alike waited to see how Gorbachev would ultimately respond. “The whole world is watching,” said Peter Aruvald, secretary general of the Estonian Central Council in Canada. “This is the acid test of Gorbachev’s reforms.”

Even more ominously, continued fighting in the southern Transcaucasian republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan has brought the official death toll to more than 60 over the past nine months. At issue is control of the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is largely populated by ethnic Armenians but which has been controlled by Azerbaijan since 1923. The conflict is rooted in the religious differences between the largely Christian Armenians and the Moslem Azerbaijanis. In Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, where government officials fear the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalists, thousands of Moslem demonstrators last week waved placards bearing the image of Iran’s religious leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Official Armenian radio reported that more than 30,000 ethnic Armenians had fled Azerbaijan over the past month, while about 40,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis had left Armenia. Said Arkady Volsky, a special Kremlin representative to the two republics: “The situation is boiling.” Tensions: Nationalist tensions also rose in neighboring Georgia, where more than 300,000 people demonstrated two weeks ago against the constitutional amendments. Several Soviet newspapers reported last week that “dozens” of protesters were staging hunger strikes. “Why cannot the country have a few parties with different views on socialism? ” asked Georgian writer Akaky Bakradze, the chairman of the nationalist all-Georgia Rustaveli Society. “If republics enjoy full sovereignty, it should be up to each one of them to have a one-party, two-party or multiparty system.” Faced with multiple challenges from the nation’s restive republics, Gorbachev was widely expected to use the Supreme Soviet session to aggressively reassert Moscow’s control. And in fact, the official news agency, TASS, which receives advance copies of Gorbachev’s speeches, initially published a summary of his address that contained sharply critical remarks about the Estonian parliament. But when he actually spoke, he made no such statements, and TASS issued a retraction. The incident suggested that Gorbachev, after the speech had already been printed and released, had decided to moderate its tone. And moderate it was: the Soviet leader told delegates that the scale of public protests— and more than 300,000 letters sent to the Kremlin—had made him aware that “some provisions in the draft laws were formulated imprecisely.” As a result, he said, 58 of 117 planned changes to electoral laws and constitutional amendments had been altered, and some of them reopened to discussion. Declared Gorbachev: “Political reform is a kind of oxygen needed by the public organism.”

Checks: Strikingly, the new system contains clear similarities to some parts of the U.S. political structure; in one resounding echo, Gorbachev said that the new Soviet system will include built-in “checks and balances.” A newly established 2,250-member Congress of People’s Deputies will meet once a year and be responsible for electing a president and a smaller Supreme Soviet. The new parliament will hold spring and autumn sessions, each running for two or three months. By contrast, the present parliament has met an average of only twice a year, for several days at a time. The presidency, once largely a ceremonial job, will now run the country’s general administration, take responsibility for treaties, laws and negotiations with foreign countries and chair the Defence Council. Each republic will have a similar, two-level parliamentary structure. Afforded the opportunity for renewed discussion of the amendments, many deputies responded with bluntness and enthusiasm. Among the spate of acrimonious debates, some centred on traditionally permissible topics: a young female delegate from Moldavia and an elderly delegate from the rural Kostadar region argued politely over whether the voting age should be raised to 21 from 18. But others ranged into more dangerous territory, reflecting the bitter tensions between some of the country’s more than 100 different nationalities and language groups.


Delegates from Armenia and Azerbaijan traded accusations over which side was responsible for continuing bloodshed. Some deputies bitterly criticized Estonia’s earlier declaration of sovereignty, which was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Soviet. But Estonian President Arnold Ruutel responded with a renewed plea for increased rights for the individual republics. “We should allow each republic the right to decide how to elect its deputies,” said Ruutel.

Impassioned: In fact, the Baltic republics carried their push for increased powers to the very end of the session. At the last moment before the vote on amendments, Dzemma Sculme, a delegate from Latvia, startled other deputies by making an impassioned plea for a change that would have given the republics veto power in the parliament. The amendment was defeated by a vote of 1,353 to 23 after Georgy Razumovsky, an alternate member of the Politburo who was supervising voting, spoke against it. But the mere fact of open disagreement signalled a marked change from the past. “The time of monolithic unanimity is gone,” said Mohammed Asimov, a deputy from the central Asian republic of Tadzhikistan. “Voting against was once considered almost a crime.”

But clearly, the debate over the powers of Soviet republics is far from over. Interethnic rivalries have played a regular part in the country’s history since the 1917 revolution. The problem is compounded by the country’s enormous size: the Soviet Union is spread across 11 time zones and has a land mass that is bigger than the combined size of Canada, the United States and Mexico.

Proponents of increased powers for the republics often argue that Vladimir Lenin, who is regarded as the founder of the Soviet state, believed in giving constituent republics the autonomy they desired—including the right to become independent. In reality, Lenin wrote in 1917: “They tell us that Russia will be partitioned, will fall apart into separate republics, but we have no reason to fear this. However

many independent republics there may be, we shall not be afraid.”

Despite that, present-day Soviet officials have reason to be nervous over the depth of nationalist feelings in several republics. Resentment of Soviet rule is particularly strong in the three Baltic states, where many residents have never considered themselves willing members of the Soviet Union. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were independent from 1920 until 1940, after an agreement between Berlin

and Moscow allowed the Soviet Union to annex the republics in return for a nonaggression treaty. The three republics, often referred to as the Soviet Union’s “window on the West,” comprise one of the country’s most sophisticated and technically advanced areas. Residents of other parts of the Soviet Union often go to the region for vacations, or to shop in the relatively well-stocked shops.

Spirit: But those same factors have also promoted a strong spirit of independence among local residents. The first language of each of the three republics bears no relation to Russian, and fears of assimilation by migrating ethnic Russians have been growing in recent years. Because of that, many Baltic residents have begun to argue that in order

for their ethnic groups to survive, they need legislative control over such areas as language, culture and immigration. The impetus for change in each of the Baltic republics has come from powerful grassroots movements that formally favor working for greater powers within the Soviet Union. Still, some of their policies, including creation of a separate monetary system and the right to trade independently with Western countries, border on full independence. Some organizers say privately that many of their members only advocate remaining in the Soviet Union in order to avoid a confrontation with Moscow. “Gorbachev gives us reason to believe,” said Mauriks Vulfsons, a political commentator on Latvian television. “But some of our people have no belief left in them.”

Clearly, the Baltic rebels are treading a fine line in their dealings with Moscow. Larry Black, director of the Institute of Soviet and East European Studies at Ottawa’s Carleton University, said that the Estonians would probably not “create a situation where violence is likely.” But he added, “The Estonians are not going to back down.” Gorbachev’s handling of the crisis has also delivered mixed messages. “It is very hard to read,” said Aruvald. “On the one hand, Gorbachev is waving a big stick in our faces, and then he offers an olive branch.” But the Baltic uprising pales beside the anger and violence that have convulsed the southern Transcaucasian republics. The clash between Azerbaijani Moslems and Armenian Christians erupted into full-scale rioting last February, killing more than 30 people—mostly Armenians—in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait. Since then, the two groups have been in almost constant conflict, despite the peacekeeping presence of Soviet troops. Last week in Baku, Soviet soldiers dispersed a crowd of about 1,500 Azerbaijanis who were trying to attack Armenians. Despite such clashes, the Transcaucasian conflict has not resulted in Baltic-

style calls for autonomy. “The Armenians are fierce nationalists,” said Levon Hasserjian, a member of the Armenian National Committee in Toronto. “But at this point in time, they have not adopted anti-Gorbachev, anti-Soviet separatist positions.” Roots: In fact, in addition to its religious causes, the conflict has historic roots that do not even involve the Soviet Union: the Armenians have never forgiven the Azerbaijanis for tacitly supporting Turkey, which had persecuted Armenians during the First World War. The dispute has also demonstrated Moscow’s apparent impotence in dealing with interethnic conflicts. Although Gorbachev originally enjoyed strong support in Armenia, that has faded because of the Kremlin’s refusal to change the status of Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh. In Azerbaijan, which borders on Iran, Soviet authorities have monitored a marked increase in interest in Moslem fundamentalism in recent years. That is a source of particular worry to Moscow. The estimated 45 million Soviet Moslems form about one-sixth of the country’s population—and their numbers are growing

quickly. Some demographers estimate that the largely Moslem central Asian population is expanding at five times the rate of the country’s European republics (page 36). Worry over that high rate of growth is compounded by traditionally uneasy relations between the nation’s dominant ethnic Russians and its Moslem minority. One of the first—and still one of the worst—ethnic riots under Gor-

bachev’s rule erupted in December, 1986, as a direct result of a decision from Moscow. After the powerful locally bom leader of the Kazakhstan republic’s Communist party was replaced by an ethnic Russian, more than 10,000 local residents rioted in the streets of Alma-Ata, the republic’s capital. Later, unofficial reports estimated that as many as 30 police officers had been killed. And last week, in a potentially ominous sign, the local newspaper Kazakhstanskaya Pravda reported the formation of a grassroots nationalist coalition called the AlmaAta Popular Front. Its charter, the newspaper said, included the promise “to act with arms, when this becomes necessary.” Scorn: Many people, including Gorbachev sympathizers, contend that the current unrest is the result of years of ethnic Russian mis-

treatment of the country’s minorities. Residents of non-Russian republics often complain that they were governed by people from Moscow who neither understood nor cared about their language, culture and customs. “Our Russian brother has been guilty of some arrogance and scorn,” declared one Gorbachev supporter, Supreme Soviet deputy Asimov of Tadzhikistan. “You cannot live in a republic without respect for its ethnic traditions and language.”

For his part, Gorbachev is the first Soviet leader with no previous experience serving in a non-Russian republic. Because of that, some analysts say that he came to office unaware and unprepared for ethnic difficulties. Declared one Moscow-based diplomat: “His philosophy has always been to put the best person on a job, while ignoring ethnic background. In this context, that is not always the best policy.” Many analysts also agree with Gorbachev’s assertion that the country’s new reforms have compounded problems by removing past fears and encouraging dissent. As Gorbachev told Supreme Soviet members last week, “Perestroika has literally blown up the illusory peace and harmony which reigned supreme in this country.”

Conflicting: Last week, the Kremlin issued a series of conflicting signals on the future direction of glasnost. On the one hand, Moscow ceased jamming the transmission signal of the United States’ Radio Liberty network, which transmits to the Soviet Union in Russian (page 33). Soviet officials also eased emigration restrictions on some dissidents and announced that, for the first time, the full works of Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov will be put on sale. But they countered those measures by a publicly toughened stance against two longtime political opponents. Last Wednesday, Politburo member Vadim Medvedev, who is in charge of political ideology, said that he opposed the publication of several works by author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, including his Gulag Archipelago. “To publish Solzhenitsyn,” declared Medvedev, “would mean to undermine the foundations on which today’s life rests.” Moreover, Soviet authorities rejected pleas from some Western groups to release dissident journalist Sergei Grigoriyants, who was arrested in Armenia early last week.


Displays: Much of the Kremlin’s future hopes for internal peace are pinned on more positive steps. Gorbachev has announced that, in June, 1989, he will hold a Central Committee meeting devoted exclusively to discussing improvement of interethnic relations. The Soviets have also begun to grant additional rights to languages other than Russian in many republics and they have started to increase teaching of other languages in ethnic-Russian republics. And over the past year, Soviet authorities have

informally begun to permit religious displays. They even participated actively in this year’s celebrations of 1,000 years of Christianity in the country. Still, widespread suspicions persist: some religious Russians say they fear that, as in the past, publicly declaring their beliefs will cost them their jobs.

The Kremlin clearly hopes that the new political reforms will provide an outlet for dealing with such frustrations. With an unlimited number of candidates allowed to run in the

elections for the new congress in March, 1989, Gorbachev said that he expects “an unprecedented degree of interest in the political process.” Some observers maintain that such public optimism may mask a private realization that, unless he can settle interethnic tensions, Gorbachev’s entire reform program may be jeopardized. With ethnic unrest growing, the Soviet leader may come under increasing pressure from Kremlin conservatives to restore order with a heavier hand.

Vision: In the long run, Gorbachev is plainly banking on the country’s ethnic groups’ coming to view his reforms as beneficial. But in his farewell remarks to delegates last week, he said that some proposed changes had met opposition because they “were not understood right away.” With his skilful political manoeuvring, Gorbachev has bought himself more time to impose his singular vision of a new Soviet Union. But on the path to perestroika, he has also turned up long-hidden resentments that, even within his vast and varied country, could prove difficult to contain.


in Moscow