A VOTE FOR SOVIET UNITY FAILS TO QUENCH A THIRST FOR INDEPENDENCE
WHEN A NATION BREAKS APART
A VOTE FOR SOVIET UNITY FAILS TO QUENCH A THIRST FOR INDEPENDENCE
On the face of it, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev achieved a substantial success last week as voters supported his call for a renewed Soviet Union. More than 136 million people participated in the first referendum in Soviet history. And in response to a vaguely worded question, by official reckoning 77 per cent of those voters indicated that they wished to preserve the vast country that stretches from Europe to China. But the positive result may do little more than lift Gorbachev’s morale in his campaign for national unity. Entering his seventh year as Soviet leader, the 60-year-old Gorbachev presides over a polyglot empire that is in the throes of economic and political disintegration.
In fact, officials in such key Soviet republics as Ukraine and Russia itself added questions to the referendum ballots in order to win local support for more autonomy. Six other of the 15 republics abstained altogether. And at a time when Gorbachev has amassed more constitutional power than any previous Soviet leader, he has become a curiously isolated figure in his own land. “Gorbachev has become a president without a people,” said Vitaly Korotich, editor of the influential weekly magazine Ogonyok (Beacon). “Now, he has only the army and the KGB.”
Soul: Certainly, the Soviet president’s much-publicized shift to the right has made him the subject of intense scrutiny at home and abroad. Even people who have worked closely with him, among them economist Stanislav Shatalin, say that they do not know whether Gorbachev is anything more than a skilled pragmatist out to save the Communist system that produced him. Added Shatalin: “I do not even know if he is a socialist at heart.” No matter what his real leanings, however, Gorbachev is plainly the central figure in a critical struggle for the soul—and the very survival— of the Soviet Union. But behind the scenes, lesser-known politicians are also playing prominent roles in the battle between reform and retrenchment (page 32). Meanwhile, Western countries, which were swept up in a wave of Gorbymania when the charismatic leader came calling in recent years, have continued to cast their lot with the Soviet president—while expressing serious reservations about his conservative drift (page 29). And on the streets and in the apartments of Moscow, an intense debate is growing as ordinary people consider their future—and that of their nation (page 30).
Within the Soviet Union, Shatalin and other reformers cite last fall as the time when Gorbachev shattered the illusion that he would free the beleaguered country from ideological rule. It was then that he balked at implementing the Moscow economist’s so-called 500-day program, which would have permitted private ownership of land and industry, and discarded central planning in favor of a free-enterprise economy. Gorbachev has insisted that he simply chose to make a more gradual transition to a market economy, one that would inflict fewer
hardships on the poor, the elderly and workers who would inevitably lose their jobs when inefficient state industries shut down. To that end, he added, recent price increases in state stores brought the price of consumer goods closer to the cost of producing them. And although bread tripled to 60 kopecks a loaf, or about $1.20, the government has at least partially compensated workers, pensioners and other consumers with wage increases.
Blunt: At the same time, some reformers said that they perceived another reason for Gorbachev’s rejection of the Shatalin program: it called for a shift of power to the republics that would leave the Soviet president as little more than a ceremonial leader with custody of the Kremlin. Said Moscow-based historian Leonid Vasiliev: “Gorbachev had every reason to be intimidated by the program’s central idea of enhancing the republics’ power.” Vasiliev added that by rejecting radical reforms, Gorbachev inevitably deepened the economic crisis. But in turn, said Vasiliev, conservatives tried to blame the economic crisis on instability caused by the restructuring reforms of perestroika.
However, Gavriil Popov and Anatoly Sobchak, the reformist mayors of Moscow and Leningrad, respectively, say that they have discovered that their power to bring about economic and social changes in the country’s two largest cities is extremely limited. Said Popov: “The structure of local governments has not been set up for making decisions. It has worked perfectly for what it was meant to do: act as a screen, disguising the fact that the
genuine levers of power are firmly in the grip of the Communist party.” He added: “The reactionaries have swung into action in a bid to retrieve their control over society. In such a context, there is no chance of cultivating an oasis of well-being in Moscow.”
That blunt assessment captures a disillusionment among former Gorbachev supporters that has grown since January, when a Soviet military crackdown in the Baltic republics left 21 people dead in Lithuania and Latvia. There, Gorbachev’s often-repeated pledge to preserve an ethnically diverse union collided with resurgent nationalism. Separatist drives are also flourishing from Ukraine to republics in Central Asia, where a desire for greater autonomy is intertwined with a religious revival among the Soviet Union’s 52 million Moslems.
From another perspective, Gorbachev is facing the consequences of one of the great failures of Soviet communism: its inability to forge a new citizenry out of the diverse ethnic, religious and language groups within the union. Under Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin, the first loyalty of the so-called Homo Soviéticas (Soviet man) would be to the country as a whole and not to his national group. But Ukrainian and Georgian nationalists alike say that such coercive institutions as the Red Army and the security police imposed the ideal of Soviet citizenship as camouflage, which allowed the Russian majority to continue its dominance over smaller national groups. And certainly, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have not wavered in their quest to regain the independence
that they lost when the Red Army forcibly annexed the three Baltic states in 1940.
As the standoff persists between the Kremlin and its restless republics, some Soviet scholars have noted that Canada is in a somewhat similar situation as it grapples with a separatist drive in Quebec and pressures for more autonomy in some western provinces. To be sure, analysts at Moscow’s Institute of U.S.A. and Canada Studies stress their reluctance to draw strong parallels between the two countries. One similarity, according to analyst Constantin Baranovsky, is that Quebec and the Baltics are preoccupied by the threat of assimilation. As a result, he said, Canada and the Soviet Union face similar choices: a vast transfer of power from the centre in order to save the union, or continued confrontation that would inevitably lead to secession. The Soviet analysts also cite a crucial difference between the two federations: Canadian authorities, they say, are unlikely to use force to keep Quebec from separating.
Crisis: But the clumsy crackdown in the Baltics and outbreaks of ethnic violence in the southwestern republics of Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia are stark proofs of the Kremlin’s inability to resolve its nationalities issue. Gorbachev’s response to such crises has been to obtain ever more sweeping powers from a compliant Soviet legislature, only to see many of his presidential decrees flouted by defiant republics.
And as the economic crisis deepens, despite his frequent exhortations to workers to fulfil
SEPARATIST DRIVES FLOURISH FROM UKRAINE TO CENTRAL ASIA
their obligations to the state, Gorbachev’s standing has declined markedly among Soviet citizens. Declared the liberal Moscow newspaper Kuranty (Chimes): “Does the architect of perestroika know what people say about him as they stand in endless lines for daily bread? Sociological surveys testify that the president has lost people’s trust. In the euphoria of unlimited power, however, he seems to be incapable of understanding this.”
Fire: As a result of such disaffection, Gorbachev is now tasting one of the most bitter fruits of his incomplete revolution: such former allies as Russian republic President Boris Yeltsin say that the author of glasnost and perestroika is blocking the road to progress. The scope and pace of urgently needed reforms require nothing less than Gorbachev’s resignation, they add. Speaking to reporters outside a polling station in Moscow where he had just cast his ballot, Yeltsin noted the gulf between himself and the Soviet president. Declared Yeltsin: “Gorbachev wants to preserve the system as a huge Communist bureaucracy that controls everything. Within the framework of that system, it will be impossible to make people’s lives any better. Therefore, the old system must be dismantled.”
But the Soviet leader shows no signs of stepping down. Instead, he has campaigned hard for a new union treaty in which the Kremlin would retain most of its powers, as opposed to the loose confederation envisaged by Yeltsin. To that end, Gorbachev launched his referendum campaign in December with one clearly enunciated objective: a positive nationwide vote that would nudge the republics towards the signing of a new treaty. But although he received a favorable vote overall, agreement between the centre and the republics is no closer. In fact, the governments of six independence-minded republics—the three Baltic states, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova—wanted no part of the referendum or a Kremlin-dominated federation.
In those rebellious outposts of the empire, Communist officials and Soviet military officers were forced to set up makeshift polling stations in party headquarters and barracks. And in Moldova, where local authorities actively opposed the referendum, angry crowds beat Russian-speaking residents and set ballot boxes on fire in the capital of Kishinev. In the agricultural heartland of the country, Ukrainian voters indicated that they would stay in the union, but only as a sovereign state with vastly increased powers. And Yeltsin strengthened his hand in his bitter power struggle with Gorbachev when Russian voters strongly endorsed the election of a republican president by direct popular ballot.
Until recently, the fight between the Soviet Union’s two best-known politicians was far from equal. Although, as Russian president, Yeltsin spoke for an area holding three-quar-
ters of the union’s landmass and half its population of 287 million, Gorbachev and the central government held tight to the gold, diamonds, oil and other resources extracted from Russian soil. Gorbachev had the power, backed by the loyalty of the army and the KGB, and Yeltsin had
only the ephemeral satisfaction of topping numerous opinion polls as the most popular politician in the land.
Collapse: That popularity is based on factors that range from Yeltsin’s strong support for private ownership of land to his speedy condemnation of military force in Lithuania in January. And now, the 60-year-old Russian leader has announced his readiness to marshal the loosely organized reform movement into a political party capable of challenging the Communist party that he quit last year. At the same time, the six-foot, one-inch Yeltsin has allied himself with coal miners whose spreading strike threatens to shut down steel mills and other vital Soviet industries. About 300,000 of the nation’s 1.2 million miners have struck over issues that include a demand for a doubling of monthly wages of about 350 rubles, or $700, and an endorsement of Yeltsin’s demand for Gorbachev’s resignation.
The crumbling economy will clearly make it difficult for the Kremlin to fulfil the miners’ demands. Gloomy official forecasts recently predicted an 11.6-per-cent drop in the Soviet
gross national product this year. Paradoxically, some Western analysts argue that the worsening economic situation may force Gorbachev to reconsider radical economic reforms in a desperate attempt to stave off social collapse. For one thing, wasteful oil-extraction methods, coupled with unrest in Azerbaijan, where much of the country’s oilfield equipment is manufactured, have seriously affected petroleum production, the Soviet Union’s chief source of hard-currency earnings. Because Siberian oilfields are short of Azerbaijani equipment, production fell to about 11.4 million barrels per
day last year from 12.5 million barrels a day in 1988. And officials from the western Siberian region of Tyumen recently warned the Soviet president that the country might have to begin importing oil in the next two years.
Yeltsin and other Soviets have voiced concerns that Gorbachev will use the positive response to his referendum to justify repression. They say that continued ethnic unrest, or more strikes by other disgruntled workers, could prompt him to restore social order through presidential rule. If that happens, labor leaders say, they will challenge Gorbachev’s leadership by calling a general strike, sparking a direct confrontation with Moscow. In that event, Gorbachev could discover that he has won a referendum only to lose control of his country. Short of such an apocalyptic development, crisis-weary Soviet citizens can only expect more of the same conditions that prevailed before the vote: continued political strife between the Soviet president and his increasingly adamant foes.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.