Anthony Wilson-Smith February 19 1990



Anthony Wilson-Smith February 19 1990

As he squinted under the lights of television cameras last week, the man considered Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s closest ally did not hide his glee. Alexander Yakovlev, a former ambassador to Canada who is now a member of the Kremlin’s ruling Politburo, has a reputation for his restrained manner and deadpan expression. But at the end of the history-making, three-day plenum of the Central Committee, involving more than 900 top Communists, an animated Yakovlev smiled frequently and bantered with reporters. After a series of often-bitter arguments, Gorbachev, supported by Yakovlev and other reformers, had pushed through measures that will cause some of the most significant political changes in the Soviet Union in more than 70 years. The most dramatic: a commitment to allow a multiparty system that could end the Soviet Communist party’s domination of power since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Said Yakovlev: “We do not think any one party should have a monopoly.”

Tide: With that decision, one of the world’s ranking superpowers embarked on a course that will inevitably reshape its political direction set by the founder of the Soviet Communist party, Vladimir Lenin. Reform-minded Soviets, who had watched the tide of democratic change sweep their Warsaw Pact neighbors in recent months, reacted ecstatically. One observer, Svyatoslav Fyodorov, a noted eye surgeon, displayed a wide grin as he emerged from the plenum and told reporters: “We will have a normal democracy. It is marvellous.” Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who met with visiting U.S. Secretary of State James Baker later in the week, predicted that the measure would immediately improve already warming Soviet-American relations. Indeed, as if to cap a historic week, on Saturday the two nations announced substantial progress towards agreements on chemical weapons, strategic nuclear arms and conventional forces in Europe. Those moves would reduce military spending at a time of acute consumer shortages in the Soviet Union, as dramatized by long lineups and low-quality products (page 28). Then, in an equally momentous development, the Kremlin apparently removed all obstacles to a speedy reunification of Germany (page 26).

In the short term, the effects of the Central Committee’s decision to give up the Communist party’s monopoly on power are uncertain. Most observers predict a fall in party membership from its present total of 20 million. In the midst of deepening frustration over the country’s growing economic crisis, the party already acknowledges a sharp decline in its ranks over the past year. At the same time, the decision to allow a multiparty system renews speculation that Gorbachev may resign as Communist party general secretary in order to concentrate his efforts on his position as state president and chairman of the Supreme Soviet. In a series of sweeping constitutional changes last year, many of the powers of the party general secretary were transferred to the chairman’s office. As well, Yakovlev said, plenum delegates supported the idea of creating a presidential system similar to that in the United States.

Force: But observers cautioned that the abolition of Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution, which declares the Communist party the “leading and guiding force of Soviet society,” marks only the start of an uncertain path to greater democracy. Formally, legislation revoking the article must be passed by the Congress of People’s Deputies and the higher legislature, the Supreme Soviet. Although successful passage appears almost certain, many experts say that, after 72 years of one-party rule, Soviets may be ill-prepared for their new freedom. Said Franklyn Griffiths, a professor specializing in Soviet studies at the University of Toronto: “I do not expect organized party politics for several years.” Communist supporters also said that they will work hard to convince voters that they should retain power. Declared foreign ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov: “All parties are going to be equal. Of course, the Communist party will want to be more equal than the others.”

In fact, the decision to submit the party’s future to the will of the electorate was one that most senior Communists—including Gorbachev—had long resisted. As recently as last November, the Soviet leader wrote in an article in the party’s daily newspaper, Pravda, that “the interests of the consolidation of society... prompt the advisability of keeping the one-party system.” But with grassroots political groups gaining increasing attention and influence, Gorbachev and other Communists clearly came to realize that, at least informally, an opposition already existed.

Proof: As large-scale proof of that, a rally held in Moscow in favor of a multiparty system on Feb. 4, the day before the plenum began, drew more than 200,000 participants—including several members of the Soviet legislature. Said one of them, prominent historian Yuri Afanasyev: “Long live the beginning of the peaceful, nonviolent revolution of February, 1990.” The next day at the plenum, Yuri Prokofyev, the party chief for Moscow, told delegates, “Society is already living in the conditions of an actual multiparty system.”

Meanwhile, one of the most serious problems for the Soviet leadership concerns the growth of nationalist groups across the country. Most of the country’s 15 republics now have Popular Front organizations, which share common aims of pushing for greater autonomy from Moscow and improved linguistic and cultural rights for their different ethnic groups. But the methods they use can range dramatically. The three groups in the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have worked peacefully within the law on a course aimed at winning their republics’ eventual independence from Moscow. But in the Transcaucasian republic of Azerbaijan, government officials said that the local Popular Front helped organize recent clashes with neighboring Armenians and Soviet troops. More than 200 people have died since the start of the year in the ethnic fighting, which erupted again last week.

Problem: In fact, the closing session of last week’s plenum was devoted almost entirely to discussing measures to deal with a related problem. Last December, Lithuania’s Communist party voted by a margin of 80 per cent to declare itself independent from the national party. When Gorbachev visited the republic in January, hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians staged pro-independence demonstrations. At the same time, several members of the republic’s Communist leadership said publicly that they also favor full political independence for the republic. As a result of all that, the Soviet Central Committee last week issued a resolution calling on dissident Communists to return to the fold. It also said that it will supply funding to the handful of Lithuanian Communists who declared allegiance to Moscow. Said Gorbachev: “We are leaving the doors open in the hope that Lithuanian Communists will use such an opportunity.”

Pact: But few Lithuanians seem attracted by that offer. Last December, the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies declared illegal a secret 1939 pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, which resulted in the Soviet annexation of the three Baltic republics. Last week, the Lithuanian legislature cited the congress declaration as evidence that the annexation was “illegal and invalid.” As a result, it proposed bilateral talks with Moscow to negotiate the restoration of Lithuania’s independence.

That defiance of the Soviet Communist party has been evident in various parts of the country. Within the past month, the Soviet media have reported four separate incidents in which local Communist leaders resigned in the face of unprecedented public anger. In one such case, in Tyumen in northern Siberia, party ideology secretary in which he said that a local party chief, Gennadi Bogomyakov, practised a “dictatorship of loutishness.” Party activists then passed a vote of nonconfidence in the entire local leadership, which forced its resignation. The newspaper Rabochaya Tribuna declared that, with the resignations, reform efforts had “advanced more in two days than in the previous five years.”

Boldness: That new boldness was evident in the oftenbarbed tone of exchanges at last week’s plenum, which quickly erupted into a fierce clash between reformers impatient at the slow pace of change, and conservatives criticizing many of the measures that Gorbachev has already implemented. Indeed, the plenum carried over into an unscheduled third day to accommodate the heated debates.

Early in the plenum, Yegor Ligachev, the leading conservative Politburo member, received warm applause when he said that the Politburo had committed “serious oversights and mistakes.” And, referring to Gorbachev’s program of perestroika, he declared: “After somewhat of an enlivening in the first two years, the economy began to decline, interethnic feuds reached bloodshed and people began to experience fear.” But Ligachev also surprised some observers by siding with the reformers on the need to speed up reforms affecting the pricing system, money supply and increased autonomy to individual republics. Declared William Taubman, a professor of Soviet studies at Massachusetts’ Amherst College: “Ligachev wants to stay on board and avoid being thrown off.” Other delegates bitterly criticized the present leadership’s habit of blaming existing problems on past leaders. Said the mayor of Moscow, Valery Saikin: “In the struggle against deformations of socialism, we let socialism itself be trampled underfoot.” He added, “Perestroikabegan without any real blueprints and often was enacted randomly.”

Faced with that opposition, Gorbachev and his supporters responded with what Western diplomatic observers described as a carefully chosen strategy. In addition to the 249 Central Committee members, more than 700 rank-and-file Communists from across the country were invited to attend as observers. They were not allowed to vote on resolutions, but were allowed to speak. And many of them expressed sympathy with Gorbachev’s ideas. Said one Moscow-based Western diplomat: “It created a groundswell of support for Gorbachev that he would not otherwise have had.”

Criticisms: Gorbachev showed a willingness to accept the delegates’ criticisms and, on occasion, to admit that he agreed with them. In his opening address, Gorbachev said that when he came to power in 1985, “the crisis that battered the country was immeasurably deeper and more serious than we expected.” He added, “Regrettably, we could not escape miscalculations and mistakes during perestroika, and this, too, has complicated the situation.” But in his closing speech, he made an emotional plea to delegates not to be swayed by a temptation to “panic and cry ‘Help.’ ”

Gorbachev finally emerged from the plenum with several key concessions that should allow him to accelerate reform plans. In addition to abolishing Article 6, the plenum delegates agreed to move up the timing of a crucial party congress from its original date in 1991 to the early summer of this year. At the last such congress, held in the successful afterglow of the 1988 Moscow summit with then-President Ronald Reagan, Gorbachev pushed through far-reaching reforms that decentralized political power and laid the groundwork for a newly reformed parliamentary system.

Treaties: The next congress, planned for either late June or early July, would follow on the heels of a Washington summit with President George Bush. The two sides are hoping to sign new armsr eduction treaties, which would again allow Gorbachev to face a party congress with world acclaim on his side. There, Gorbachev is expected to propose measures to cut back the size and powers of the Politburo and Central Committee and reduce the influence of the Communist party on the government. Yakovlev said that the proposal the plenum approved regarding the creation of a presidential system would involve a president and cabinet taking office for a specific term, as in the United States. When reporters asked Gorbachev last week whether he would run for president, he responded, “Let us wait and see.”

Some Western analysts exercised similar caution in predicting what Gorbachev’s next move is likely to be. Declared Timothy Colton, a Canadian expert on Soviet affairs who now teaches at Harvard University: “Gorbachev has a habit of being very vague when he does not know what to do and when he cannot overplay his hand.” Colton added that, although “the trend towards changes is obvious,” he was “not sure that the plenum has settled too much.”

In fact, some observers said that the plenum did not clarify whether Communist party cells that operate in all state-run factories, schools and hospitals will continue. As well, Gorbachev did not say whether Communist committees will continue to name appointees to such highly coveted positions as the editor-in-chief’s post at major newspapers. Said Amherst College’s Taubman: “All we have seen is Gorbachev’s speech stating that the party will give up legal and political advantages. The question is: which political and legal advantages?”

Victory: But few people expressed doubt that Gorbachev had won a significant political victory. Although rumors had circulated in Moscow before the plenum that disenchanted Central Committee members might seek his resignation, most experts agreed that he emerged with his personal power enhanced. Said a Moscow-based Western diplomat: “He turned what could have been his political funeral into one of his biggest victories.”

Despite the intensity of the debates, Gorbachev’s final platform was approved with only one dissenting vote. That came from Boris Yeltsin, the outspoken reformer who has become Gorbachev’s most vociferous critic. Yeltsin later told reporters that he opposed the platform because it did not go far enough in its suggested changes.

For their part, ordinary Soviets interviewed by Maclean ’s greeted the idea of a multiparty system with a mixture of anticipation and confusion. Many Soviets say that their prime interest in political change is how it will affect the country’s economic crisis. Said Sergei Klujkov, an engineer from Ukraine: “There is no way out of the economic mess we have now. I blame it all on the one-party system.” But Ludmilla Vasilova, a 32-year-old engineer, declared, “This situation is so complicated now that a multiparty system might make it harder to make improvements.”

Some Soviets attribute such uncertainty to the repressive methods practised in the country’s past. Said Nikolai Krasavchenko, a journalist and political consultant: “We have very strong traditions of fear and suppression. That is why it may seem that Soviets are more afraid than people in other countries.”

Emotion: That is an emotion that Gorbachev clearly hopes to avoid. As he spoke to delegates last week after his new measures had received passage, he cautioned them to be wary of the tactics used by opponents of his reforms. Said Gorbachev of opposing conservatives: “They say, ‘You have wrecked a flourishing state.’ In another breath, they tell you they are not panic-mongers and that they favor perestroika. But they are panic-mongers. This is defeatism.” As he offers the Soviet people a great leap forward towards full democracy, Gorbachev clearly does not believe in looking back.