Soviet television repeatedly broadcast warnings that violent extremists were planning to disrupt the pro-democracy protests. Teachers told children to stay at
home, and government officials warned hospital staff to prepare for an onslaught of casualties. And, in what activists said was a clear effort to distract potential protesters not frightened by the official scare campaign, state TV broadcast a Soviet rarity, a soft-core porn movie, on the morning of the demonstrations. But, despite all those efforts, hundreds of thousands of Soviets rallied peacefully in at least 20 cities across the Soviet Union on Feb. 25 in the first nationwide show of strength by the country's pro-democracy opposition. In Moscow, speakers urged 50,000 protesters to vote for reform candidates in upcoming republic elections. As well, they criticized President Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform program as halfhearted. In one of the strongest attacks, dissident journalist Sergei Kuznetsov denounced Gorbachev as the heir to a “totalitarian” and “criminal” regime.
After that challenge to the Kremlin’s authority, other dramatic breakthroughs followed. For one thing, the Supreme Soviet, the country’s inner parliament, voted to give citizens
the right to lease land for the first time since the 1917 Communist revolution. For another, Gorbachev took action to increase his own power significantly. At the same time, in elections in the Baltic republic of Lithuania, voters overwhelmingly rejected the Communist party. Of the 90 seats decided last week, 72 went to candidates supported by the pro-independence movement Sajudis, giving the movement a majority in the 141-member parliament, even before runoff elections are held for the 51 seats in which no single candidate won more than half the votes. “This day is a line between the past and future,” declared Sajudis chairman Vytautas Landsbergis. And he predicted that the new parliament would declare an independent Lithuanian state before the end of the year.
A day after the Lithuanian elections, voters in the southern republic of Moldavia elected the nationalist Moldavian Popular Front to half the decided seats in parliament. But a majority of the 380 seats will not be filled until runoff elections, leaving the final result uncertain.
The new land law passed by the Supreme Soviet last week is part of Gorbachev’s plan to revive the country’s troubled economy. Under the draft law, which the Congress of Peoples’ Deputies, the country’s leading legislative
body, still has to approve, local farm committees will have the right to order farm collectives to lease parcels of land to individuals. But critics of the plan argued that it does not go far enough, because individuals will not be allowed to own or sell the land and the farm collectives will likely hand over only small, marginal parcels of land. Said Pavel Bunich, a Soviet economist: “The authorities are not going to want to give up their best areas.”
After a bitter, daylong debate, the Supreme Soviet also passed legislation that will give the president sweeping powers to impose a state of emergency and martial law in troubled areas. The law also calls for the Congress to elect the president for four years and, after that first term, for the president to be elected directly by the people for five-year terms. The Congress, scheduled to meet on March 11, still has to approve that bill as well. But observers say that the chamber is certain to pass the law and to give Gorbachev the new presidential post. He cited the recent unrest in the
southern republic of Azerbaijan, where an estimated 200 people died in interethnic feuds, to justify the need for greater presidential authority. Many critics have said that Gorbachev could have reduced the bloodshed if he had moved more quickly to send in troops. But in the Supreme Soviet last week, some reformist deputies argued that the new draft law is too sweeping. Said Sergei Stankevich: “We can still feel the great totalitarian tradition in this country.”
And in Lithuania and the other two Baltic republics, Estonia and Latvia, which hold parliamentary elections later this month, legislators expressed concern that Gorbachev would use the new powers to stifle their independence plans. After the debate in the Supreme Soviet, Lithuania’s electoral commission hurriedly advanced many of the republic’s runoff elections by a week to March 3. That would allow the Lithuanian parliament to meet this week, before the Congress has a chance to pass the new presidential law—and, as a result, head off any pre-emptive move by Gorbachev to prevent secession. Said Algimantas Cekuolis, a Sajudis deputy: “Maybe Gorbachev is already accustomed to the idea of independence, or maybe he will try some trick. We want to keep one jump ahead of Moscow.”
For his part, Gorbachev has said that, although republics theoretically have the right under the constitution to secede, they cannot do so unilaterally, and Moscow will have to approve such a move. But, as the vote in Lithuania and the rallies across the Soviet Union clearly showed last week, Gorbachev may have difficulty controlling the rapid pace of change that he himself has set in
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