Crisis congress

A vital showdown prompts anger and apathy

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 16 1990

Crisis congress

A vital showdown prompts anger and apathy

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 16 1990

Crisis congress


A vital showdown prompts anger and apathy

As he left the Kremlin one afternoon last week, Viktor Kamsha, a devoted Communist party member, was plainly impatient. That morning, Kamsha and more than 4,600 other Communists had listened to a series of angry debates during the party’s 28th congress in Moscow. Some members had publicly called upon Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to step down as party leader.

Gorbachev responded by suggesting that he and other leaders would eventually do so if the country’s economy does not improve. “In two years,” declared Gorbachev,

“if there are no changes, the present leadership must go.”

But, to the 37-year-old Kamsha, who represents coal miners in the southern Donetsk region of the republic of Ukraine, such exchanges, however open and blunt, were only cause for pessimism. “There is no leader who represents my point of view,” he said. “All my hopes are left behind. There is no more time for hopes.”

Amidst a curious atmosphere that mixed anger with apathy, those remarks reflected the feelings of many Soviets. But the congress, which was expected to end on July 11, remained a vital event for the Communist party. Not only would the dele---

gates elect a party leader and approve a new platform and rules, but they met at a time of economic and political crisis that occasioned a crucial showdown between conservatives and liberals. In that, Gorbachev received a boost from an unlikely source: last week’s NATO summit in London. Soviet officials said that the NATO leaders’ efforts to chart a new, lessthreatening course for the alliance had strengthened Gorbachev in his dispute with Soviet military conservatives. “Now,” said foreign ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov, “we can say we will have co-operation and not confrontation.” And Gorbachev seemed pleased by an invitation to address a future NATO meeting. “I’m always ready to go,” he told reporters.

Despite such developments, and blanket coverage of the congress in the Soviet media,

many Soviets reacted with open animosity—or an equally obvious yawn—towards the convening Communists. Last Tuesday, nearly 4,000 people turned out during a rainstorm at an anticommunist demonstration in Moscow’s Gorky Park. Meanwhile, in interviews conducted by Maclean’s in other parts of Moscow, some

residents said that they did not even know that the congress was taking place. Other people, including Communist party members, said that they no longer believe the party is capable of finding solutions to the country’s widespread consumer shortages and other economic problems. “This [congress] will not change anything in our lives,” said Claudia Lebedeva, a 48-yearold physician and longtime Communist. “The party will die, sooner or later.”

For Gorbachev, however, the congress was a key test of strength. Gorbachev had already vowed to stay on as party chief as well as president, despite opposition from both conservatives and liberals. And his opening address called for swifter moves towards a less centralized political structure and a controlled freemarket economy. In a speech that lasted more than two hours, he spoke of “crisis” situations

in the country’s economy and ecology, and he warned that such troubles are rapidly turning the Soviet Union into a “second-rate power.” Declared Gorbachev: “Either Soviet society will go forward along the path of the profound changes begun, or let us face the facts squarely: dismal times are in store for the country and the people.”

That theme was echoed in other speeches throughout the week by prominent reformers, including Alexander Yakovlev, the former ambassador to Canada who is regarded as Gorbachev’s closest ally in the Politburo. But the most radical note was struck by populist leader Boris Yeltsin, chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the giant Russian Republic. Yeltsin, who has been pressuring Gorbachev from the left, warned conservatives that the party would eventually lose all its power unless it opted for rapid democratic changes. “Any attempt to delay them,” he said, “which some people are dreaming about, will inevitably lead the party to full historic defeat.”

Continuing to walk the line

between conservatives and radicals, Gorbachev has already backed off on plans to introduce a sweeping price-reform system that would dramatically increase the cost of such staples as bread and milk. At present, prices of such items are kept artificially low through massive state subsidies, which, according to some Soviet economists, cost the government up to $260 billion annually—one-fifth of the total Soviet budget. As well, most economists agree that the ruble, which cannot be traded freely for other currencies, has severely hampered the Soviets’ foreign-trade prospects. Gorbachev has said that he wants to make the ruble convertible, but he has not said when. Last week, he appeared to take a careful but slightly more aggressive stance on the issue. “The main thing is to work for the convertibility of the ruble,” he said. “Until lately, we

The strength of the conservatives was evident in the delegates’ cool response to Yeltsin’s speech—and their warm ovations for many antireform speakers. Vladimir Kryuchkov, the head of the KGB secret police, bitterly criticized recent economic reforms. Although Kryuchkov has been regarded as a Gorbachev ally, he said that free-market moves had produced an unfair distribution of wealth and a “whole layer of millionaires.” Said Kryuchkov: “We hear assertions that in the West everything is good, and here everything is bad.” But he added that, along with the positive effects of reforms, “the negatives from the world of capitalism have also been transferred into our life.”

referred this to a distant future, yet the matter should not be put off.”

In general, Gorbachev’s political straddling act seemed successful last week. For one thing, there was speculation that he had skilfully manoeuvred a series of resignations from the ruling, 12-member Politburo. They included two full members, Nikolai Slyunkov and Vitali Vorotnikov; one member of the party secretariat, Gumer Usmanov; and nonvoting Politburo member Alexandra Biryukova. All of them were regarded as either ineffectual or uncertain supporters of Gorbachev’s policies, and their departure appeared to strengthen Gorba-

chev’s position. Still, the resignation of Biryukova, the highest-ranking woman in the Soviet leadership, drew gasps from delegates when it was announced.

In addition, despite their harsh criticisms of Gorbachev, members of the party’s conservative and liberal wings alike still appeared to support him personally. Boris Gidaspov, the party leader from Leningrad who is a rising favorite of conservatives, said that he would back Gorbachev’s continued leadership of the party. Politburo member Yegor Ligachev, widely regarded as the country’s leading conservative, deplored Gorbachev’s five years in power as a time of “blind radicalism,” but said nothing about ousting him as leader. Many liberal delegates also said that they would support him. And about 100 delegates who back the reformist Democratic Platform said that they

had cancelled earlier plans to quit the party. Said Andrei Godunov, a reformer and Communist delegate from Leningrad: “We feel, from a pragmatic point of view, that the changes we need can best be achieved within the party.”

It is increasingly apparent, however, that many ordinary Soviets no longer feel that way. One poll, conducted in June by a television station in Siberia, found that only seven per cent of respondents think existing Communist party policy fully reflects their interests. Moscow’s High Party School, an elite training centre for senior party organizers, recently made public the startling results of another

public opinion poll that it conducted last month across 12 regions of the country. Twenty-one per cent of respondents said that they support the party’s existing platform, while 42 per cent said that they back the more liberal Democratic Platform. Among nonmembers of the Communist party, only two per cent said that they would like to join; among party members polled, 23 per cent said that they plan to quit.

Even as it contemplates such findings, the party leadership faces a renewed and potentially devastating challenge. Shortly after the congress began, coal miners in the region of Kuzbas in Ukraine announced plans to walk out on July 11 to protest working conditions in the mines. Similar strikes by coal miners in Ukraine and Siberia last July and November are estimated to have cost the Soviet economy more than $12 billion through lost production.

Earlier this year, Gorbachev, in a meeting with miners’ representatives, pleaded with them not to strike again. But, in a statement last week, the miners called on the existing government to resign, saying that it is “incapable of carrying out indispensable reforms, largely because it is not trusted by the people.” There are signs that Gorbachev and other Communist leaders have still not recognized the full extent of resentment directed towards them. Many ordinary Soviets were openly disappointed by Gorbachev’s recent declaration that he still supports the retention of Communist “cells” in schools, the military and the workplace. The cells, which are made up of Communist members, were responsible in previous regimes for identifying acts and people regarded as “anti-Soviet.” Today, their function is more benign, but they still exert a large measure of control over hiring, promotion and distribution of perquisites. Said a Moscow-based Soviet journalist: “As long as they keep that, they keep the real power.”

In addition, despite the country’s economic woes, Communist leaders apparently have no plans to redistribute the party’s enormous wealth. Last week, officials acknowledged that the party’s holdings, including printing presses, property, schools, office buildings and vacation retreats, are worth $9.8 billion. Many reformers say that those holdings should be turned over to the government. But, said Nikolai Kruchina, a Central Committee official, that demand is intended “to weaken the party, deprive it of its material basis and make it unable to engage in political struggle.”

The party, in fact, may already be losing that struggle. As congress delegates arrived at the Kremlin on foot or in Zil limousines, many Muscovites played down the significance of the event. “The results of this congress will not affect us,” declared Oleg Halizoff, a 40-year-old factory worker. “This is not a leading body; it has lost its power.” With Communist supporters still holding most major decision-making roles in the country, that assertion is still to be tested. But it is a reminder of how dramatically Soviet thinking has evolved in more than half a century, since the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote: “The earth, as we all know, begins at the Kremlin. It is her central point.” In the stifling heat of a Moscow summer, that once deep-rooted belief is showing signs of withering away.