Four Days That Shook The World

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 11 1988

Four Days That Shook The World

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 11 1988

Four Days That Shook The World



The speech, following four days of sometimes startlingly frank discussions, was uncharacteristically brief and unabashedly jubilant. Shortly after General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev stood up at the podium of the Kremlin’s Palace of Congresses last week, he looked up from his prepared text and gestured around the cavernous, three-tiered hall. Declared Gorbachev, in a speech heard by millions of television viewers and the 4,991 delegates to the 19th Communist party conference: “This hall has not known such discussions, comrades.” Then, with a smile, he added, “Nothing of the kind has occurred in this country for nearly six decades.” With that, Gorbachev prepared to launch some of the most sweeping social, political and economic reforms in the 71year history of the Soviet Union. At the close of the four-day conference, an event that shook the world and brought together elected delegates from across the Soviet Union, the unprecedented debates and plans for widespread structural change seemed to be evidence that a historic second Soviet revolution is now under way. With Communist party officials planning a sweeping decentralization of political power, and with a new set of political institutions to be established within a year, the Soviet Union’s 284 million citizens are beginning their first experiment with a more Western-style democracy. As well, Gorbachev’s plans to allow expanded ownership rights in business and property seem likely to

enhance greatly the development of private enterprise. Declared one Moscowbased Western diplomat: “The country’s politicians have given evidence they wish to join the 20th century.” He added, “For the first time here, there is a feeling that almost anything could be possible.”

Democracy: But the conference also made clear that Gorbachev’s vision of future democracy in the Soviet Union still differs sharply from Western practices. Even though the conference passed resolutions dealing with such policies as glasnost (openness), perestroika (economic reform) and demokratizatsiya (democratization), most of the discussions took place behind closed

doors, and conference organizers did not say how a consensus was reached among delegates. The resolutions were not precise, and their exact interpretation will be left to Gorbachev and the more than 300 members of the Central Committee.

Despite Gorbachev’s desire to separate the powers of the party and the state, he retains the right to serve as both general secretary of the Communist party and president of a newly reformed Supreme Soviet parliamentary system. And although a new rule limits party officials to two five-year terms, it is unlikely that the regulation will apply retroactively to the three years that Gorbachev has already served.

The outcome of the conference also demonstrated the strength of Gorbachev’s grip on the party— and on the country. Diplomatic observers had regarded the conference— the party’s first such gathering since 1941—as an eleventh-hour opportunity for conservative Communists to oppose the speed and breadth of Gorbachev’s reforms. In the final two weeks before the meeting, several Moscow newspapers speculated openly that Gorbachev’s opponents might form the majority of elected delegates. And the general secretary, in his opening speech to delegates, referred to the “tenacious” and “dogged... forces of inertia” opposed to his reforms.

Instead, the conference provided the remarkable spectacle of reformers and conservatives arguing over which side was being more faithful to the spirit of Gorbachev’s proposed changes. On the last day of the conference, Yegor Ligachev, a Politburo mem-

ber who has been regarded as the Soviet Union’s most powerful conservative, clashed publicly with Boris Yeltsin, the former head of the Moscow section of the Communist party. Yeltsin has been an enthusiastic supporter of Gorbachev’s reforms, but last October he went too far in a speech to the Central Committee, complaining that reforms were being adopted too slowly. As a result, Gorbachev fired his former protégé in what appeared to be a conciliatory gesture toward party conservatives. In May, Yeltsin, who is still a member of the Central Committee, compounded the offence by publicly calling for the resignation of Ligachev, due to his alleged unwillingness to support Gorbachev’s reforms. As a delegate to the conference, Yeltsin was in the limelight once again, urging a speedup in the pace of perestroika. But Gorbachev denounced Yeltsin for his “lack of strength” and “loud phrases,” and an angry Ligachev supported Gorbachev, telling Yeltsin

that he was “destructive.” Said Ligachev, as his voice shook with emotion: “The position of the Politburo is my position. The policy of perestroika has become the cause of my life.” Ligachev flatly opposed Yeltsin’s plea to have his former status restored. Gorbachev, also vetoed his plea for rehabilitation, clearly considering the overenthusiastic Yeltsin more of a liability than an asset.

Reforms: With his support consolidated, Gorbachev can now formally institute his most cherished reform programs. In his closing speech, he said that he plans to begin work almost immediately to expand the powers of existing soviets, or councils, at the municipal, regional, state and national levels. By the fall of 1989, Gorbachev said, delegates will be elected to a Congress of People’s Deputies and a streamlined Supreme Soviet. Both bodies will discuss and monitor state legislation. The president of the Soviet Union, a position that Gorbachev will be eligible to hold, will be

elected by secret ballot vote among members of the new congress. Gorbachev also said that he plans to democratize the Communist party and that it will “irrevocably abandon its commandand-order methods” in favor of “the most stringent observance of Soviet laws and democratic principles.” Still, it was unclear what precise role the Supreme Soviet will have in relation to the congress.

Gorbachev’s most widely felt reforms are likely to be his dramatic economic changes. Many Soviet industries are now moving toward his goal of khozraschot—self-financing and self-management—but Soviet economists acknowledge that the measure will result in the displacement of millions of people from their present jobs by the turn of the century. As well, Gorbachev plans to overhaul long-established planning and quota systems for major industries in order to end “the vicious circle of production for the sake of production and the plan for the sake of the plan.”

Consumers: The economic changes are likely to have an uneven impact on consumers. With increased housing construction planned to offset chronic shortages, Gorbachev plans to allow a limited degree of private property own-

ership. He declared, “The idea is to meet people’s wishes to have a co-operative flat or their own cottage.” The conference also approved plans to encourage the creation of co-operatively owned businesses and leasing arrangements that would encourage small-business enterprises. Those developments are likely to be broadly welcomed. But many Soviets may be less sanguine about Gorbachev’s plan to end government subsidizing of food, energy and raw material costs. That measure is likely to result in sharp price increases.

But Gorbachev said the money that is now given to producers as subsidies will, instead, “be handed over in full to the population as compensation.”

Debates: Gorbachev introduced many of those themes in the course of a spirited 31/2-hour appeal at the start of the conference for a “full-blooded democracy with no reservations.” His assertive manner and the wide scope of his proposals surprised some Western diplomats, who had expected him to adopt a moderate approach. Instead, the speech set the tone for the sometimes tumultuous debates. “We need no social utopias,” declared Gorbachev. “What we want are clear guidelines and objective criteria of socialism at all stages of change.”

Problems: The speech outlined the themes that became the central issues of discussion throughout the conference. Along with his proposals for reform of the political system, Gorbachev recited a litany of existing economic problems that includes shortages of food and consumer items, artificially low subsidized food prices, a rising budget deficit and mass overproduction of unwanted industrial products. The issue of food shortages, said Gorbachev, “is the most painful and the most acute problem in the life of our society.” And despite the efforts made during his three-year-old peres

troika program, Gorbachev admitted that “the state of affairs in the economy is changing too slowly.”

But the leader also indicated several areas where he is not planning wide-

spread changes. Despite increasing pressure for expanded autonomy from restive ethnic groups, he rejected the demands by Armenians who want the largely Armenian area of Nagorno-Karabakh turned over to them from the

neighboring Republic of Azerbaijan. And although he has shown willingness to grant limited recognition to a properestroika, quasi-political party in Estonia, Gorbachev and other Central Committee members said that they do not encourage the formation of new political parties. Said Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev, a former ambassador to Canada who is regarded as Gorbachev’s closest political adviser: “We can accommodate all ideas within our party.”

Drama: In fact, Gorbachev’s exhortation during his opening speech that “each Communist should really be a fighter” seems to have been taken to heart by many delegates, who initiated an unprecedented level of debate. For the first time in the memory of Westá ern diplomatic observers, I some delegates openly lt; criticized senior party members by name and publicly disagreed with their policies. On one dramatic occasion, Vladimir Melnikov, party secretary for the Komi Autonomous Republic in Siberia, was widely applauded when he called for the removal of former foreign minister Andrei Gromyko from his largely ceremonial post of Soviet president and of three other senior officials who rose to prominence during the rule of late party boss Leonid Brezhnev. Declared Melnikov: “Those who in earlier times actively carried out the policy of stagnation cannot now, in the period of perestroika, remain in the central party and Soviet organs.”

Other delegates sharply criticized the power and perquisites given to members of the ruling Central Committee. In an apparent challenge to those privileges, just before the conference, a newspaper in Azerbaijan took the unprecedented step of publishing the home telephone numbers of 41 usually inaccessible local party officials. The paper told its readers that it had done so to

promote the “consideration of complaints and questions.”

On the same theme, delegate Veniamin Yarin, a steelworker from the Urals, told the conference, “We do not know what issues each member of the Politburo is personally responsible for.” He added that the people should be told “who must be thanked for successes and who must be made accountable for failures.” Added delegate Vasily Starodubtsev, chairman of an agroindustrial complex at Tula, south of Moscow: “There is a caste of untouchables among senior party officials that is beyond the reach of criticism. We should duly assess this phenomenon.”

In the fast-ripening atmosphere of glasnost, it sometimes seemed as though any policy or precedent, however hallowed, was open to change.

In a meeting with foreign reporters, Evard Figuranov, an economist who works for the Central Committee, said that Gorbachev’s reforms may even result in the creation of a Soviet stock exchange, designed along Western capitalist lines.

Added Figuranov: “It is not under consideration yet, but I think it will be in the future.”

Criticism: Even Gorbachev himself did not escape criticism. His apparent desire to serve as both general secretary of the Communist party and president of a newly shaped and strengthened Supreme Soviet (upper parliament) was strongly opposed by some delegates on the grounds that it would concentrate too much power in the hands of one person. Said economist Leonid Abalkin: “This innovation hardly fits the concept of limiting the functions of party and government bodies.”

Gorbachev appeared to relish the debate. He nodded his head vigorously when he agreed with some points and verbally parried with other speakers. When a delegate from Gorbachev’s home region, Stavropol, suggested that he was too “humane” to fire inefficient bureaucrats as they deserved, Gorbachev smiled and chuckled in apparent disagreement. Later, when pro-glasnost actor Mikhail Ulyanov said that many newspapers outside Moscow still followed the lines dictated by local party leaders, Gorbachev interrupted to suggest that, in so doing, they were avoiding some of the “excesses” of the newly critical Moscow press. But, responded Ulyanov, “do you want to have

no mistakes and no one upset and lower the role of the press? Or is it, as I thought, that you want to raise the press’s role, even if it makes mistakes?” Gorbachev did not answer.

Accusations: The conference also demonstrated that the desire for more openness is not shared by everyone. Many delegates sat silent and glum as Gorbachev—and other speakers—extolled the merits of glasnost. And Soviet

television, which aired live broadcasts of the conference on an irregular basis, frequently cut programming when debates became heated. In a similar display of lingering conservatism, Vladimir Karpov and Yuri Bondarev, directors of the strongly conservative Writers’ Union, argued that Soviet newspapers have “abused” glasnost by presenting a distorted impression of the past. They sharply criticized delegate Vitaly Korotich, editor of the crusading magazine Ogonyok, over his journal’s allegations that four delegates from Uzbekistan were guilty of bribery and corruption during the Brezhnev era. The next day,

Korotich mounted the podium and repeated the allegations, handing Gorbachev a sheet of paper that apparently contained the names of the four.

At other times, the atmosphere in the conference hall was reminiscent of a religious revival meeting. Delegates occasionally gave the impression of trying to outdo one another in denouncing past errors. But delegates who strayed from the point or tried to use their speeches for self-promotion often got short shrift. As the official news agency TASS reported, “Sometimes [the audience] interrupted the speakers who repeated truisms or used the rostrum of the conference for reporting their accomplishments.” Indeed, at times the audience treated such speakers to a derisive, slow handclap to hasten their departure from the podium.

History: As the conference neared its close, many of those in attendance seemed unwilling or unhappy to see it end. For most of the 3,733 male and 1,258 female delegates—whose ranks included 436 “intellectuals,’’ 866 agricultural workers, 182 farm managers and 1,638 industrial workers—the conference represented a firstever opportunity to meet and talk with senior Soviet officials. Said one delegate, a schoolteacher in her mid-30s: “I feel some day as g though I can tell my grandchildren that I was a part of history.” That heady sense of being directly involved in an event of historic proportions was shared by some senior officials. Yakovlev, who spent nearly 11 years in political exile as ambassador to Canada before returning to Moscow in 1983, and later assuming a high Kremlin post under Gorbachev in 1985, was one of those who could barely contain his delight last week. Said Yakovlev: “What you are seeing is no less than the birth of a new revolution for the socialist Soviet people.” As the Soviet people look to the future, that represents both an unequalled hope— and an unprecedented challenge.