Freedom’s Year


MALCOLM GRAY December 23 1991

Freedom’s Year


MALCOLM GRAY December 23 1991

Freedom’s Year




He took office in March, 1985, a charismatic reformer who humanized the stony face of Soviet communism and made the words glasnost and perestroika part of the world’s vocabulary. He touched off a stampede to freedom—one that would eventually trample on his own political career and break up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Last week, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev appeared to be little more than yesterday’s man. After two days of talks in Belarus (formerly Byelorussia)—meetings from which Gorbachev was pointedly excluded—three powerful republican leaders emerged to declare that the U.S.S.R. was dead. At week’s end, five Asian republics also agreed in principle to join a new commonwealth, seemingly spelling the end of Gorbachev’s dream. The dramatic change began when the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus created a loose Slavic commonwealth encompassing about 75 per cent of the old union’s population of 280 million—and most of its vast nuclear arsenal. Initially, an angry Gorbachev argued that three leaders alone could not dissolve the union. But as it became clear that other republics would likely seek commonwealth membership, he edged closer to leaving the stage that he had once dominated. “My life’s work is over,” Gorbachev told Soviet reporters in the Kremlin. “I have done the best that I could.”

Gorbachev’s humiliating

position as the president of a defunct state is a byproduct of the political free-for-all that has overwhelmed the old union over the past year. Across the vast empire, Communist governments have toppled as fast as statues of founder Vladimir Lenin. Long-suppressed nationalities have achieved sovereignty, the once-mighty KGB state police force has crumbled, and the once-muzzled media has recorded it all. And when Kremlin and military hardliners tried to turn back the clock last August, their shortlived coup led instead to the collapse of party rule. But the pursuit of freedom always carried the inherent risk of anarchy. And now, Gorbachev’s old rival, Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, has emerged as the predominant leader of the disintegrating land—and the only man with an apparent hope of spearheading a successful conversion from communism to free-market democracy.

For the moment, in theory at least, as the supreme military commander Gorbachev is still in charge of the Soviet nuclear arsenal of more than 27,000 warheads. And in repeated assurances to a nervous world, the four republics with long-range missiles on their soil have stressed that those strategic weapons and smaller tactical arms will remain under some form of centralized control (page 25). But those security promises have been vague and often contradictory, heightening concern about the theft or clandestine sale of atomic warheads in a country that is already torn by ethnic violence and internal border conflicts (page 27).

Western nations reacted cautiously to the high-speed changes in the old Soviet Union. U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, before leaving on a weekend trip to Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, emphasized

that the Americans would not try to “inject ourselves into this purely political process” unfolding in the republics. And External Affairs Minister Barbara McDougall told reporters that Ottawa welcomed the new Slavic commonwealth—although she stopped short of pronouncing the old union dead. “The Soviet Union is evolving into a new format,” she said, “and the changes we see are posi% tive.” Bernard Wood, direc2 tor of the Canadian Institute s for International Peace and ! Security, said that the West z mustremainflexible. “Frankel ly,” said Wood, “I think any5 one who does have a rigid 1/1 policy right now would be in trouble, because we are seeing some of the most important, far-reaching and unpredictable changes that the international community has seen in the past century.” Disorganized: Against such an ominous backdrop, many analysts voiced dire predictions. Yevgeny Primakov, the director of the Soviet foreign intelligence service, a former branch of the discredited KGB, warned that the country’s disorganized supply and distribution networks were close to complete collapse. “Then there could be real upheaval,” he added. “There is a possibility that at the beginning of next year, the people may reach their breaking point.”

Those people have certainly been tested over the past 12 months, riding a roller coaster of exhilarating new freedoms and accompanying instabilities played out against the depressingly familiar daily grind of finding

enough to eat. One year ago, at a time when Gorbachev had surrounded himself with hard-line conservatives, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze announced his resignation in a dramatic speech that warned of an impending dictatorship. Less than a month later, the Kremlin launched a campaign of force, intimidation and harassment in the independence-seeking Baltic states. Clashes between soldiers and civilians claimed 21 lives in Lithuania and Latvia as military units seized such key public installations as the main television transmission tower in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Republican president Vytautas Landsbergis responded by refusing to leave the legislature building, where barricades of concrete blocks offered little more than symbolic protection against any armed assault. Despite that overwhelming imbalance of force, Lithuania held fast, refusing to withdraw its March, 1990, declaration of independence.

Weapon: In Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) last winter, a loose coalition of democrats and reformers was also applying the lesson of the events in Vilnius and the Latvian capital of Riga: massive peaceful resistance could be a powerful weapon against overbearing authority. On March 28, a crowd of more than 100,000 pro-democracy supporters marched through the streets of Moscow. They failed to reach the Kremlin, but they did exercise their right of assembly—despite the menacing presence of 50,000 soldiers and policemen. Gorbachev, shielded by troops enforcing his ban on demonstrations in the city centre, appeared cut off from the reformers who had once been his strongest supporters.

Then, in June, the Soviet Union’s experiment with democracy took another step forward when voters in the giant Russian republic chose Yeltsin as the first popularly elected leader in the 1,000-year history of the state. Yeltsin could then claim an important distinction over Gorbachev: while his political archrival owed his position to key Communist party members, Yeltsin had won a general election. That qualification served Yeltsin well in August, when an eight-man junta deposed Gorbachev and sent tanks rolling towards the Russian legislature. St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak argues that it was Yeltsin’s endorse-

ment by the voters, and not his courage in delivering a speech from atop a tank dispatched by the junta, that made him the focus for resistance to the short-lived coup. Later, enveloped in the glow of victory, Yeltsin claimed that all of Russia had risen against a bungled attempt to reimpose the Kremlin’s authority—despite the fact that only 150,000 people out of Moscow’s eight million residents actually turned out.

Still, the people who gathered to defend their elected officials included many members of the country’s supposedly apathetic younger generation, as well as businessmen who saw no profit in the re-entrenchment of communism. In addition, the Baltic states vigorously opposed the junta, which included such powerful officials as the federal defence minister, the prime minister and the chairman of the KGB. Perhaps most crucially, the majority of military units quietly declined to answer the coup leaders’ call to arms. As a result, the coup quickly collapsed; communism itself soon crumbled, as well. During those heady August days, Yeltsin’s republican government restored Czar Peter the Great’s tricolor as Russia’s national flag.

Dizzying: The end of seven decades of Communist rule has also intensified other nationalist drives that had been checked by the enforcers of Soviet uniformity, the Red Army and the omnipresent secret police. The Baltic states regained the independence that they had lost in 1940, leaving the union with good wishes from Yeltsin. For the Russian president, seeking to salvage some form of loose union, the key republic was Ukraine, the nation’s breadbasket. And when Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for independence from Moscow on Dec. 1, Yeltsin sprang into action. One week later, he presided over a so-called Slavic summit at a remote hunting lodge near Belarus’s border with Poland. Maintaining the dizzying rate of political change that has become commonplace in the former union, Yeltsin emerged after two days of intensive discussions with Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk and Belarus’s leader, Stanislav Shuskevich, and announced the formation of a new confederation.

Shuskevich’s Dec. 8 declaration about the Commonwealth of Independent States shared some elements of Gorbachev’s plan for a looser

union: both stressed unified control over the country’s nuclear weapons, as well as a coordinated foreign policy and a common economic zone. But the Slavic troika’s plan, which the Asian republics later embraced, includes no provision for a central government— and no presidential chair for Gorbachev. Said Kravchuk:

“There is no place for a central body above the states. I can imagine only a co-ordinating body formed by the independent states.” And in a clear bid to suppress widespread non-Russian suspicions about continued domination by Moscow, the commonwealth’s administrative centre is to be located in the capital of Belarus, Minsk.

Disintegration: In Moscow, Russian legislators were quick to approve the pact after Yeltsin warned them that the commonwealth represented the last chance to halt “the anarchic disintegration of our nations’ common space.” The parliaments of Belarus and Ukraine also approved the accord. And the original members of the commonwealth eventually persuaded Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the fourth republican leader known to have nuclear weapons on his territory, to join the fledgling association. They were able to do so by promising to make him, retroactively, a founding member of the new commonwealth.

Nazarbayev then helped to persuade four other Asian republics, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan, to abandon Gorbachev’s futile pursuit of a new union treaty and consider terms for joining the commonwealth. The group of five has a total population of

nearly 50 million. And three other republics, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Moldova (total population 14.6 million), have indicated that they will likely join the new commonwealth. Only the southern republic of Georgia, while congratulating the three Slavic leaders on their handiwork, stopped short of announcing its intention to come on board.

Now, as the citizens of the former Soviet Union enter a winter that will severely test their commitment to democracy, few of them had kind words for the man whose attempts to transform Soviet communism had brought about its collapse. Despite Gorbachev’s dazzling reputa“ tion abroad, the food shortje ages and nearly worthless currency that characterize his era ? at home overshadow the inii creased freedoms that have "■ also flourished under him. “Life punishes those who are late,” the Soviet president told Erich Honecker in 1989 as he urged the leader of what was then East Germany to undertake sorely needed reforms. But neither man heeded that advice. Last week, Honecker had taken refuge in Chile’s embassy in Moscow: the protection from German extradition, once provided by the Soviet president, had vanished with the rest of Gorbachev’s dwindling powers. The Gorbachev years were ending with equal measures of democracy and chaos spreading across the country. Now, it has fallen to Yeltsin and his republican colleagues to heed Gorbachev’s warning about the perils of delay.