AT GORBACHEV’S INSISTENCE, THE CONGRESS OF DEPUTIES ENDED ITS OWN LIFE
WHY THE SOVIET UNION DIED
AT GORBACHEV’S INSISTENCE, THE CONGRESS OF DEPUTIES ENDED ITS OWN LIFE
In the end, Mikhail Gorbachev fell back on a well-tested axiom of Western back-room politics: if earnest persuasion does not work, try shouting. It did not take much. After four days of rancorous, name-calling debate, the Congress of People’s Deputies capitulated to an angry ultimatum from the Soviet president last week by surrendering nearly 74 years of Moscow-dominated power to the nation’s rebellious republics. Then, the congress voted itself out of existence. In doing so, the roughly 2,000 delegates approved the creation of an entirely new system for running the world’s biggest and third most populous country. They also formally put to death the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Said liberal delegate Alexander Vladislavlev: “We are moving from a great power into a whole new era.”
For the 60-year-old Gorbachev, tonguelashing the assembly into submission was per-
haps an inevitable outgrowth of his own fiveyear campaign to open up and invigorate Soviet society. But by bowing to his repeated demands last week for new and even more radical reform, the congress helped to revive a politi-
cal career that had been badly battered by a failed right-wing coup just over two weeks earlier. Gorbachev’s fortunes were further enhanced by initial world reaction to the momentous work of the congress. In Tokyo, a foreign ministry spokesman said that Japan would respond by offering food and medical supplies, estimated to be worth $345 million. In Tehran,
President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said that Iran supported Gorbachev’s policies “and the will of the Soviet people.” And Moscow’s new regime was quick to display its own support for the will of the people: it 1| recognized the independence of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia (page 30). “These republics,” Foreign Minister Boris Pankin announced matter-of-factly, “are now separate from the Soviet Union.”
Freeing the Baltic states was the first major official act of the State Council, the highest of the three centres of power created by the revolutionary plan that the congress of deputies endorsed. The council members are Gorbachev and the leaders of 10 republics—the same men who secretly designed the whole package before the congress convened on Sept. 2. The council will have control of the armed forces, foreign affairs, law enforcement and state security. The second organ is a two-chambered Supreme Soviet comprising members to be chosen by the republics, but its relationship to the State Council is still unclear. The Supreme Soviet, which must meet by Oct. 2, will probably be given the task of writing a new constitution. The third agency is the Inter-Republican Economic Committee, which will be responsible for social policy and for managing and á reforming the country’s collapsing 5r economy.
I For the time being, the State ia Council is expected to govern by m decree—its decisions will be law. As
for the government as a whole, the
congress resolution merely directed the leadership to ensure “the legal continuity of power and management, guaranteeing a peaceful and orderly transition to a democratic, civil society.” It also urged the negotiation of a new union treaty, defining the relationship among the republics—and the future shape of the union.
The congress had little warning that it would be asked to preside over its own death. When the deputies discovered what was happening, those on the political right, who favor strong central government, were outraged. For four days, the debate echoed in the corridors and the great hall of the Palace of Congresses. Liberal delegates backing Gorbachev heaped scorn on the congress for being out of step with the reformist mood of the country. In response, conservative hard-liners accused their opponents of trying to engineer another coup. Gorbachev, in pursuit of the two-thirds majority needed for passage, turned to a series of procedural rulings, at one point banishing the deputies from the hall altogether for five hours. Three times he submitted the plan to a vote, and three times it was defeated.
Finally, Gorbachev’s patience ran out. On Thursday, he stood at the podium and shouted: “If we cannot agree on this, the congress ceases its work”—a clear threat to send the deputies home. On the fourth vote, the measure passed when 112 abstaining delegates
decided to cast ballots. Said Gorbachev sarcastically: “I thank those 112 who joined us. I am much obliged to them.” But when it came time to close the session, he had mellowed. “The congress met the standard of this responsible, historic moment,” he said with evident satisfaction. Among the exhausted deputies there was only grudging applause. Remarked the liberal delegate, Vladislavlev: “The republics have created this absolutely new country.”
Failed: The president had many critics. One of the most outspoken was historian Roy Medvedev, a onetime dissident who rejoined the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist party before the Soviet parliament, at Gorbachev’s instigation, put the party out of business on Aug. 29. Medvedev accused Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who had banished the party in the republic a week earlier, of acting arbitrarily and illegally. It would have made more sense, said Medvedev, to reform the existing system than to invent a new one.
But Gorbachev had the last word—and he made it clear that the Communist party, which he had led and strongly defended until last month, has become a political relic. Sitting in armchairs beneath glittering chandeliers in the Palace of Congresses, he and Yeltsin appeared on a live ABC News television program early Friday morning, Moscow time, to answer questions from American viewers. When one of them asked whether any country should con-
tinue to live under Communist rule, Gorbachev replied that “the socialist idea” had successfully promoted democracy, economic development and human rights in several European countries. But, he said, “the historical experience which we have accumulated has allowed us to say in a decisive fashion that that model has failed which was brought about in our country. And I believe that this is a lesson not only for our people, but for all peoples.” During the more than two days that he was silenced and held under house arrest by the leaders of the coup, Gorbachev’s star was eclipsed by Yeltsin’s heavily publicized defiance of the conspirators. And even after Gorbachev’s release, there was speculation that he would remain in the Russian president’s shadow. But when Yeltsin attempted to reassure an American viewer that Soviet nuclear weapons were tightly controlled, Gorbachev quickly intervened to assert his authority. Declared the president: “We are now speaking about something which is closest to the supreme commander-in-chief, who is the president of the U.S.S.R.” Because of existing safeguards, he added, “there could not possibly be any decisions of an undesirable nature with regard to nuclear weaponry.” (Underlining that point, Gorbachev’s new defence minister, air force marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, said on Friday in Moscow that all Soviet nuclear weapons had been removed from Eastern Europe, and that
those in the Soviet Union were safely under control.)
Meanwhile, the major task facing the Supreme Soviet’s constitutional architects when they meet next month will likely be working out how the republics will deal with one another. For one thing, five of the 10 that took part in drafting last week's reform plan—Ukraine, Byelorussia,
Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan—have already declared outright independence. So have the five republics not participating in the talks: the Baltic states,
Moldova and Georgia. Representatives of Ukraine, planning to recruit its own army and print its own currency, spoke of the Soviet Union’s political future as being more like the European Community than a single country. Byelorussia, which does not want its own army and currency, prefers a single country. Uzbekistan spokesman Vladimir Zorin said that his Central Asian republic looked forward to something “between a national confederation and a community of nations.”
Plight: There was not even a name for the new entity that replaces the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Gorbachev referred to it as the “Union of Sovereign States,” although that designation is not official. But there were ominous signs that the most pressing challenge facing the new nation, whatever it is called, would be feeding and sheltering its 291 million citizens through the winter, which some meteorologists have predicted will be harsher than usual. In the ABC television broadcast, Gorbachev himself told a questioner that “we truly do need co-operation with regard to food and medications.”
Officials of the Soviet and republican governments have described the plight more bluntly. One spokesman has predicted that the 1991 grain harvest will be 45 million tons less than last year’s bumper crop of 235 million tons. Because of widespread strikes and obsolete or broken mining machinery, coal production has fallen dramatically. In the Russian republic’s coal-rich Kuzbass region alone, production is down by 16 million tons since Jan. 1. In Washington on Friday, Soviet Embassy first secretary Anatoly Shurygin told a seminar that the energy shortages included oil and natural gas as well, and he appealed to U.S. oil companies for help in developing new fields.
To a population already demoralized by chronic food shortages and long lineups, politicians have delivered mixed messages. In a televised speech last week, acting Soviet prime minister Ivan Silayev, who is also Russia’s prime minister, sought to reassure his republic’s 147 million people. Said Silayev: “We shall do everything possible to prevent the danger of hunger in Russia. Don’t be afraid of the coming winter as regards food supplies, fuel and electricity.” However, Yevgeny Petryayev, the Soviet deputy minister of power engineering and electrification, was openly pessimistic. “It is now quite clear,” he said, “that we will not be able to stock enough fuel for the winter.” As a result, he added, “energy generators will be paralysed and electricity supplies will be severely restricted.”
Other members of the central government
anxious to avoid adding hunger to the potential for political instability are openly appealing for Western aid. Alexander Yakovlev, a former ambassador to Canada who later helped Gorbachev design perestroika, said that “empty pans are more dangerous than tanks.” And Yuri Luzhkov, who handles foreign economic affairs for a state agency set up following last month’s coup, gave visiting Canadian International Trade Minister Michael Wilson a shopping list that included grain, livestock feed, meat, dairy products, sugar, vegetable oil, tea and cocoa. “The state needs immediate deliveries of food,” Luzhkov said. “If we do not resolve the problems of purchase and deliveries of food, the country will feel not just the lack of it, but famine could start.” Gratitude: In spite of the lurching economy and the political uncertainty, the August showdown at the barricades, pitting thousands of demonstrators against troops loyal to the coup, revealed a suppressed passion for change. The Moscow city council, fed up for years with cramped quarters on Tverskaya Street, rebelled last week and moved to evict the Lenin Museum from its pinnacled, redbrick building on Red Square. In the Ural Mountains, the grimy industrial city of Sverdlovsk, where the Bolsheviks executed Czar Nicholas II in July, 1918, has reverted to its prerevolutionary name of Yekaterinburg, after 18th-century Empress Catherine I. And the Russian parliament gave Leningrad, named in honor of U.S.S.R. founder Vladimir Lenin, permission to restore its old name of St. Petersburg.
But at week’s end, perhaps the most significant reversal of all lay in the attitudes of some congress deputies who, before last month’s abortive coup, often accused Gorbachev of political naïveté or opportunism. When the congress finally adjourned, several of them invited him to join them for a group picture. Commented deputy Arkady Murashov: “There is still a great feeling of respect for him and for all he has done—a feeling of gratitude lives on inside us.” In the tumultuous months ahead, Gorbachev and the other builders of the new Soviet Union will need all the mutual respect they can muster.
RAE CORELLI with MALCOLM GRAY in Moscow and correspondents’ reports
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.