Seeking a ‘new face’ for socialism

CHRIS WOOD June 6 1988

Seeking a ‘new face’ for socialism

CHRIS WOOD June 6 1988

Seeking a ‘new face’ for socialism


While Red Army bandsmen rehearsed two national anthems, protocol officers hastily rescheduled events to accommodate a last-minute change in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s timetable. As the fourth Ronald ReaganGorbachev summit meeting approached, officials in Moscow were preoccupied with ensuring that the events unfolded smoothly. But for most Soviets, a more gripping drama was unfolding on the domestic stage. In Moscow, the usually docile Soviet parliament defied the government and demanded reforms in a new tax on income from private businesses. Then, calling for a “new face for socialism,” the Communist party’s Central Committee proposed democratic reforms curtailing the powers of the party.

As President Reagan delivered a presummit speech in Helsinki demanding stronger Soviet action to safeguard human rights, Muscovites lined up at the newsstands to read about the new political reforms at home. It was clear that, for them at least, this week’s summit would be overshadowed by the latest developments in Gorbachev’s three-year-old drive to reshape Soviet society. Since taking power in 1985 Gorbachev’s performances on the international stage have won him generally high marks at home and abroad. And his command of Soviet foreign policy was strengthened in the days leading up to the Moscow summit by the first withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan as well as last week’s announcement that Vietnam, a Sovietaided ally, would pull 50,000 of its soldiers out of neighboring Kampuchea.

Despite those successes, Gorbachev’s domestic program has been skeptically received by many Soviet citizens. Intellectuals and the media have welcomed the relative freedom of political glasnost, but the new openness has also exposed many bureaucrats to criticism. For many working-class Soviets, meanwhile, the prospect of a more freewheeling economy has created insecurity, while perestroika — or restructuring—has so far done little to ease shortages of housing or reduce the lineups for consumer goods. A poll by Soviet researchers and two American news organizations showed that half of the Muscovites surveyed said that they had seen no tangible benefits from Gorbachev’s reforms.

Faced with mounting doubts about reform, Gorbachev badly needs support at the impending extraordinary special congress of the Soviet Communist party, the first since Josef Stalin convened one in 1941. The congress will give 5,000 rank-and-file party members an opportunity to vote on reform. Gorbachev says that he wants the conference to approve new rules limiting the terms of party office holders, a change that political analysts said would allow him to purge the party of opponents to perestroika. But the generally pro -glasnost Soviet media have recently report-

ed numerous instances of opponents of reform bending delegate-selection rules in order to pack the conference with hard-line conservatives, believed to be led by the Kremlin’s number 2 leader, Yegor Ligachev. And when one antireform bureaucrat was asked to predict the vote’s outcome, he smiled and said, “It is not clear who will win.” The Central Committee’s decisions last week gave Gorbachev significant support. Last Monday it voted to approve a draft reform resolution to be put to delegates at the special conference, which begins in Moscow on June 28. While maintaining the party’s position as the principal source of authority, the reforms would give more power to elected legislatures, known as “soviets,” limit the tenure of party and government officials to 10 years and restructure the judicial system to increase the independence of judges. Declared the resolution: “The path to a brand-new state of Soviet society and a new face for socialism lies in revolutionary restructuring and democratization.” Although he did not obtain all the changes he wanted—including one requiring party officials to retire at 70—the development did represent a victory for Gorbachev.

Other events also demonstrated support for reform. In the Supreme Soviet, the nominal parliament that usually rubber-stamps party proposals, legislators challenged details of a law expanding the rights of co-operatives. In its original form, the law had imposed taxes of up to 90 per cent on income earned from co-operatives—a measure intended to make it clear to hard-line socialists that no one would get rich from the experiment with free enterprise. But legislators amended the law to allow local governments to grant tax breaks to co-operatives that provide badly needed goods or services. On the same day, several prominent advocates of reform called publicly for a new political grouping, independent of the Communist party, to press the case for perestroika.

Opponents of reform were watching Gorbachev’s summit performance closely. Said one senior Soviet official: “Anything like a failure at the summit will play into the hands of the opponents of reform.” In fact, the summit seemed cer-

tain to be judged more on style than on substance.

At their last meeting, in Washington last December, Gorbachev and Reagan initialled a treaty to eliminate medium-range nuclear arms.

But negotiators have so far failed to agree on a follow-up pact limiting strategic weapons. Instead, Reagan has made it clear that he intends to thrust Soviet human rights abuses to the top of his summit agenda.

During his first full day in Moscow on Monday the President planned to meet leading Soviet dissidents and refuseniks, Soviet Jews who have been denied permission to emigrate. And Western diplomats said that if Reagan is seen to press the issue too far, it could sour the summit for his Soviet counterpart. Noted author Anatoly Ryba-

Gorbachev’s critics can already point

kov: “Any perceived sign of weakness to any hint of offence from Reagan will be used by Gorbachev’s enemies.” to the limited results achieved by the reforms he has attempted so far. Those measures, phased in since 1986, range from halving the production of vodka in an attempt to reduce alcoholism to serving notice that three million of the country’s 18 million bureaucrats will lose their jobs by 1990. Since Jan. 1 most large factories and collective farms have

been told to rely on their own profits, instead of state subsidies, to finance new investment. But while factory managers are now free to pursue new markets, few have any experience with marketing.

Gorbachev has insisted that dramatic measures are needed to revive the Soviet economy. But reform has provoked resentment well beyond the substantial ranks of Soviet drinkers. Predicted American Kremlin-watcher Frederick Starr, president of Ohio’s Oberlin College: “If embittered bureaucrats forge

ties with alienated labor, reform will face formidable opposition.” Last week’s poll, conducted for The New York Times and CBS News by Moscow’s Institute of Sociological Research, found strong support for Gorbachev’s reformist aims. Some respondents said that they would like to see greater tolerance for public demonstrations and competitive elections. But many were skeptical that the reforms would succeed. Only a very slight majority said that democracy could evolve from the country’s oneparty system. And only 40 per cent said that they expected their standard of living to improve in the next five years.

Last week’s events seemed to demonstrate that Gorbachev’s drive for reform still had strong momentum. But as the forces for and against reform battle their way toward the critical party vote, Gorbachev will clearly need all the help his supporters can provide. At the same time, he could less than ever afford a

misstep on the international summit stage.




in Moscow