Is the party over?

Yeltsin’s resignation sparks a Communist rift

MARY NEMETH July 23 1990

Is the party over?

Yeltsin’s resignation sparks a Communist rift

MARY NEMETH July 23 1990

Is the party over?



Yeltsin’s resignation sparks a Communist rift

For nine days, the Kremlin Palace of Congresses was the scene of a titanic battle. Conservative delegates to the 28th Soviet Communist party congress led blistering attacks on President Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform policies, saying that they had weakened the party and the Soviet Union’s world stature. An angry Gorbachev fought back.

“There is no way to bring back the past,” he thundered.

“And no dictatorship, if someone still entertains this crazy idea, will solve anything.” In the end, Gorbachev prevailed. Last week, delegates re-elected him as party general secretary, and Gorbachev beat back a rightist bid to elect hard-liner Yegor Ligachev as his deputy. But then, Gorbachev and the party suffered a potentially devastating blow from the left— a blow that effectively split the monolithic party that had ruled the country unchallenged for seven decades.

On Thursday, the 10th day of the congress, radical Boris Yeltsin announced that he was resigning from the party to concentrate on his work as president of the powerful Russian Federation—marking the first time that a nonCommunist is leader of a Soviet republic. “In connection with the moves towards a multiparty system, I cannot fulfil only the instructions of the Communist party,” said Yeltsin. “I have to bow to the will of all the people.” Moments later, a leader of the Democratic Platform announced that his 104-member radical party faction would also quit to form a new political party. And the next day, the mayors of Leningrad and Moscow turned in their party cards.

At week’s end, it remained unclear how many of the Democratic Platform’s members would actually leave. But the split, unprecedented in Soviet history, rocked the congress and underlined what the two breakaway may-

ors, in a joint statement, called “the party’s complete inability to offer the country a real program of transition to a new society.”

The party split, however, was only one of Gorbachev’s problems last week. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet miners walked off the job, many of them saying that they no longer support the party that rules in the name of the working class. Gorbachev also failed to win a commitment for massive economic aid from the leaders of industrial nations meeting in Houston. Western observers said that those

troubles and the political split would further undermine the party’s power. Declared Adam Ulam, director of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University: “It’s only a question of time before some other forces arise, like the Democratic Platform, which will challenge the party for the right to rule.”

Early in the 11-day congress, which began on July 2, the conservatives scored several victories. They rejected two amendments that would have softened the wording of a statement on the party’s military policy. Ignoring a recent pledge by NATO leaders to soften their nuclear strategy in light of democratic changes throughout Eastern Europe, the congress concluded that “so far, there are no guarantees of the irreversibility of the positive changes, and the military threat to the U.S.S.R. continues.” The congress also approved a resolution condemning the purges of Communist leaders in Eastern Europe, where hard-line regimes crumbled last fall.

Still, the hard-liners did not rim a candidate against Gorbachev for the post of general secretary. And Gorbachev easily won that election against a relatively unknown mining engineer, Teimuraz Avaliani, by a resounding 3,411 votes to 501. (The other 615 delegates voted against both candidates.) Gorbachev also had little trouble winning support for his plan to reorganize the party hierarchy in a way that effectively moved decisionmaking power from the party to his own handpicked presidential council. And the congress voted by a large margin lt; to expand the Politburo to 24 $ full members from the cur^ rent 12, and to include the § party chiefs from the 15 re| publics. Western diplomats in á Moscow said that the new “ arrangement was a clear victory for Gorbachev, who - would have much less difficulty controlling the largely pro-reform republican chiefs than the group of mostly conservative Russian men who have traditionally held sway over the Soviet Union.

The most volatile showdown between radicals and conservatives emerged during the election for deputy secretary general. Gorbachev tried, unsuccessfully, to use procedural manoeuvres to keep the conservative, 69-yearold Ligachev off the ballot. Observers said that, as deputy, Ligachev would have seriously undermined Gorbachev’s reforms and sparked an

exodus of liberals from the party. Gorbachev favored Vladimir Ivashko, 58, who resigned as president of the Ukrainian republic to run for the post, saying, “It is very important that the two people at the top are close in their views.” When the congress finally backed Ivashko by 3,109 votes to 776, some delegates said that Gorbachev had succeeded in preserving party unity. But Ivashko is widely considered to be a moderate conservative, and although that assisted his election in the conservative-dominated congress, it clearly did not satisfy the radicals.

The congress was winding up debate on the composition of the policymaking Central Committee last Thursday when Gorbachev suddenly noticed Yeltsin, his longtime political rival, waiting at the microphone.

“Ah,” said Gorbachev, “I see Boris Nikolayevich has something to say.”

After Yeltsin’s brief resignation speech, a startled silence filled the chamber. Then, some delegates burst into scattered applause, while others cried, “Shame! Shame!” Gorbachev, who had sat impassively during Yeltsin’s brief statement, commented with a wry smile, “That ends the process logically.” Yeltsin walked out of the chamber, through the foyer and outside to a waiting car.

Some observers questioned Yeltsin’s timing and suggested that he intended to rebuke Gorbachev just when the Soviet leader appeared to have succeeded in keeping the party together. “He waited for Gorbachev to be flushed with Communist pride,” said one American analyst living in Moscow. “Then, he dropped the bombshell.” A Soviet general said that Yeltsin had chosen the wrong moment. “It’s like a rat leaving a sinking ship,” he said.

In fact, although the actual number of delegates who resigned last week was relatively small, their actions underscored the erosion of the Communist party’s power and credibility. Democratic Platform leaders had said before the start of the congress that they would break away if sweeping reforms of the party’s structure, including a decision to surrender its direct control over the armed forces, factories and the judiciary, did not result from the congress’s deliberations. Most observers said that the radicals would likely stay to fight for change within the party, especially after Gorbachev succeeded in beating back the conservative challenge. But, last week, Democratic Platform leaders said that they intended to forge an alliance with other opposition parties. And some analysts predicted that last week’s resignations would provoke a further exodus of the party’s 19 million members—already leaving at the rate of several thousand a day. One delegate told

the congress that he feared “going home to piles of burned party cards.”

In the final hours of the congress, Gorbachev said that he was unconcerned by the resignations. He said that he viewed with “contempt” those who left the party. “I am not veering from my course,” he declared. “And I have many supporters.” In fact, many of those elected to the Central Committee on Friday appeared to be supporters of Gorbachev’s reforms. And Ligachev, who was not even a

candidate for the Central Committee, later announced that he would return to his native Siberian village to write his memoirs. Said one foreign analyst in Moscow: “After all the sound and fire of the past few weeks, Gorbachev is going to get the Central Committee he wants to push ahead with reform.”

But that reform may not come fast enough for many citizens disillusioned with Communist rule. In the midst of the troubled congress, hundreds of thousands of Soviet coal miners in western Siberia, Ukraine’s Donetsk region and the Soviet far north held a 24-hour strike. Although the walkout was less costly than last summer’s prolonged wave of nationwide strikes to protest low wages and poor living conditions, it was more politically oriented. The miners demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov’s government, saying that it had failed to honor the terms of last year’s strike settlement. Strikers also demanded the nationalization of property belonging to the party and the withdrawal of party organizations from mines, factories and the armed forces.

Striking miners outside the gates of the Butovsky mine, in the heart of the Siberian Kuzbass coal region, said that the party and the battle under way between reformers and conservatives in Moscow meant little to them. “The party has been promising us a ‘bright future’ for 72 years,” said Gennadi Mikhailets, a strike leader in Siberia. “We don’t want a ‘bright future,’ just a decent tomorrow.” Added Andrei Voronits, a 54-year-old former miner from the Donetsk region: “From 10 years old, I was against the party, but only in the last few years have we been allowed to speak about it.”

Potential rivals of the Communist party have stepped up their activity in the Siberian coalfields. Permanent workers committees, outgrowths of last year’s strike committees, are virtually parallel government bodies in many mining districts. And representatives of the fledgling Democratic Party of Russia, the Social Democratic Party and the Democratic Platform addressed rallies throughout the Kuzbass region. “The Communists are no longer the only game in town,” declared one Democratic Party organizer. “They had better wake up, if it’s not too late already.”

Those sentiments were echoed in Moscow, where many citizens say that

the Communists have lost their signifi-

canee. In a recent poll by the Academy $ of Sciences, Muscovites gave the parP ty only an eight-per-cent approval rat| ing. Said Natasha Danilenko, a 34| year-old housewife: “Before, the i party had relevance for us because it

was a threat, an authority symbol. Now, it isn’t really much of either.” As the split in Communist ranks last week demonstrated, the party may in fact become just one of many political forces in the emerging democracy that Gorbachev himself has set in motion.