WORLD

A TAINTED TRIUMPH

GORBACHEV, AS NEW PRESIDENT, FACES GROWING DISSATISFACTION AND CHALLENGES TO HIS RULE

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 26 1990
WORLD

A TAINTED TRIUMPH

GORBACHEV, AS NEW PRESIDENT, FACES GROWING DISSATISFACTION AND CHALLENGES TO HIS RULE

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 26 1990

A TAINTED TRIUMPH

WORLD

GORBACHEV, AS NEW PRESIDENT, FACES GROWING DISSATISFACTION AND CHALLENGES TO HIS RULE

After three days of often-rancorous debate, the final ceremony was brief and simple. At midmorning last Thursday, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev rose from his seat in the cavernous hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace and stood, hands folded, while members of the country’s Congress of People’s Deputies applauded. When the clapping subsided, Gorbachev, wearing one of his customary navy-blue suits, walked to a nearby wooden table and laid his hand on a red-bound copy of the Soviet Constitution. Then, he recited an oath in which he swore to “serve the peoples of this country, to strictly abide by the constitution, to guarantee rights and freedoms of the citizens, and to conscientiously fulfil the lofty duties of president of the U.S.S.R.”

With those words, the 59-year-old Gorbachev became the country’s first-ever executive president, opening a new era in Soviet politics. His unprecedented, constitutionally guaranteed powers include the right to negotiate treaties single-handedly, to appoint a cabinet, to propose new legislation, to veto bills passed by the Council of Ministers—and to declare war. And the five-year term of office offers a level of political security unmatched by any previous Soviet leader. But Gorbachev’s triumph was decidedly tainted. Although he ran unopposed, the growing frustration of both liberals and conservatives was readily apparent: only 1,329 of the 2,245 members of the congress voted for him, while 495 members voted against him and the remainder either abstained or, in some cases, deliberately spoiled their ballots. And he will clearly need all his new power to combat a growing array of challenges to the Moscow government, most notably from the restive Baltics. In his acceptance speech, Gorbachev pledged to fight “growing nationalist and chauvinist tenden-

cies” and to keep the country from splitting up.

The most immediate crisis is in Lithuania. There, the legislature voted unanimously on March 11 to declare the republic’s independence, prompting celebrations from Vilnius, the capital, to Toronto, heart of Canada’s 30,000-strong Lithuanian community. Although Gorbachev called the declaration “illegal and invalid,” he said that a commission

headed by Premier Nikolai Ryzhkov would study the issue. But the republic’s new president, Vytautas Landsbergis, who is head of the grassroots Sajudis movement, which spearheaded the independence drive, called on the Soviet Union to negotiate the terms of independence immediately. In the face of a week’send Kremlin ultimatum that it pull back from its declaration of independence within three days,

Lithuania formed a new government and appealed for international recognition.

That defiant mood was evident elsewhere as well. In the other Baltic republics of Latvia and Estonia, where elections to their local legislatures are scheduled for March 18, political leaders hailed Lithuania’s action and promised to take similar measures. Said Valdis Steins, a member of Latvia’s legislature and leader of the republic’s nationalist Popular Front: “I will insist that we follow the example of Lithuania.” Support for such actions is also growing in the southern, Transcaucasus-region republic of Georgia. And some Soviet observers say that advocates of Georgian independence appear poised to win a majority of seats when the republic holds elections for its local legislature on March 25.

At last week’s meeting of the Congress of People’s Deputies, most members from Georgia and the three Baltic republics abstained from voting on Gorbachev’s candidacy because, they said, they now regard themselves as observers rather than participants. All four republics claim that they were forcibly and illegally annexed by the Soviet Union—Georgia in 1936, the Baltic republics in 1940. Said Steins: “We must stress that Latvians want to renew a country, not build a new one, since our

territory is now under occupation.”

The congress also revealed marked dissatisfaction with Gorbachev himself. Soviet reformers said that they are deeply suspicious of Gorbachev’s intentions in creating and assuming the powerful new role of president, and their opposition led to several key compromises before the voting. Gorbachev gave up the right to ignore parliamentary vetoes. And, following strong pressure from Baltic deputies, he promised that he would not impose a state of emergency in any republic without first giving an official warning and gaining the approval of the republic’s legislature. Baltic deputies had expressed concern that without such restrictions, the measure could be used to quell even peaceful nationalist demonstrations.

Despite those compromises, Gorbachev

faced strong opposition. Although he had been widely expected to be nominated unopposed, a group of deputies calling themselves Soyuz (Unity) nominated Premier Ryzhkov and Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin to run against him. Both men declined the nomination. But a new debate erupted when many deputies said that the task of choosing a new president should be decided in a nationwide election, as will be the case in future. That would have meant that Gorbachev would be obliged to face voters at a time when the country is suffering from widespread consumer shortages and near-crisis economic conditions. A poll conducted by the Soviet Academy of Sciences last month showed that nearly 73 per cent of Soviets were unhappy with the way the government was running the economy.

But Gorbachev’s allies pleaded that the severity of the country’s problems leaves no time for delay. On the eve of the congress, Alexander Yakovlev, former ambassador to Canada and Gorbachev’s closest ally in the Politburo, gave a rare interview to the Soviet media. In it, he effusively praised Gorbachev and gave his personal assurance of Gorbachev’s “clear determination” not to abuse his new powers. And before the vote on whether to allow the deputies to choose the president, the oldest deputy, 84-year-old historian Dmitri Likhachev, made an emotional address on Gorbachev’s behalf. He declared, “I remember the revolution of February [1917] very well, and I know where emotions can lead.” He added, “Direct election of the president will lead to civil war.” Shortly afterward, the deputies voted by a margin of 1,542 to 368, only 46 votes over the two-thirds majority needed, to allow the congress to name the president.

Some observers contend that Gorbachev may shed one of his most traditional sources of power this summer, when the Communist party holds a special congress. During last week’s legislative session, the deputies voted ü to repeal Article 6, a section of the constitution that described the Communist party as the “leading and guiding force” of Soviet life. Now, Moscow-based diplomats consider it increasingly likely that Gorbachev will resign as the party’s secretary general at the summer congress in order to separate himself from growing resentment towards the party.

Still, Gorbachev supporters acknowledge that, as the country’s problems grow, political manoeuvring will no longer suffice. Within the next few months, they say, Gorbachev must demonstrate that he is making headway in improving the country’s disintegrating economy and pacifying its impatient, independenceminded republics. “We have a long way to go,” said one Kremlin official, “and only a short time to get there.” Even with Gorbachev’s new powers, the road to Soviet reform appears likely to remain unsafe at any speed.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Moscow