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The Threat to Gorbachev

1.

Last December Mikhail Gorbachev’s closest political ally, Alexander Yakovlev, said in a speech: “We probably have no more than two to three years to prove that socialism as formulated by Lenin can work.” Perestroika, or restructuring, had, he said, brought little material benefit to ordinary people, and if it were to fail, the likely outcome would be “a triumphant, aggressive, and avenging conservatism.”1

At about the same time, Andrei Sakharov and the former Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubcek, independently of each other, made similar statements.2 Since then, the first Congress of People’s Deputies, which ended in June, has made Soviet politics even more turbulent, lending these statements added force. The recent suppression of the democracy movement in China can only have strengthened Yakovlev’s, Dubcek’s, and Sakharov’s fears. With an avenging conservatism triumphing so easily in Beijing, Sakharov, for example, said on June 17: “I would not rule out that what has just happened in China could occur in the Soviet Union.”3 Notwithstanding the sensational fruits of glasnost and democratization, indeed precisely because they are so sensational, I would not rule them out either.

Like Yakovlev, however, I suspect that even though perestroika’s problems are fast mounting, the period of greatest danger probably lies some way in the future. Since the time when I wondered in these pages whether Gorbachev would show himself temperamentally akin to Nikita Khrushchev,4 he has done exactly that. He has dared again and again, and, with dazzling power plays, he has made his own position at least temporarily more secure.

I suggested last summer that if he were to take this course, “the stakes will go on rising, and the current truce in the Politburo will not last.” The truce was duly broken in September, when Gorbachev brought off a mini-Putsch to outflank his rivals, and the stakes once again shot up.

Before discussing this Putsch, let me clarify two points. First, Yakovlev uses the word conservatism as a convenient term for the wide spectrum of people and groups who are politically to the right of Gorbachev. So do I. Second, if Gorbachev were eventually to be ousted, then, although the conservatives would probably deal a heavy blow to perestroika, this would scarcely doom reformism for all time. Like their soulmates in China, the conservatives still have no convincing program for dealing with communism’s deep and intractable problems. So reformism would live to rise again.

Last summer Gorbachev became increasingly frustrated. At the Party conference in June, he had not been able to purge the Central Committee of conservatives.5 And although he could maneuver them to agree on paper to many of his reform plans, their resistance to reforms in pricing, distribution, and industrial management generally meant that perestroika was not taking off.

Gorbachev’s radical vision of perestroika was, and is, to build a powerful economy based on market socialism and an expanded but still small private sector. Second, he envisions a dynamic society ruled by the Party, but with other groups having a limited political role in accordance with the principle of “socialist pluralism.” To achieve this vision he needs to break up much of the apparatus of the Partycontrolled state, with its 18 million officials who run the society and the economy, and to mobilize the long dormant energies of ordinary people. These energies will, Gorbachev hopes, provide both the engine of perestroika and—to replace the highly suspect and mainly conservative Party-state apparatus—give additional political power to Gorbachev and his associates. The chief instruments for this strategy are glasnost, or openness, and democratization.

Not surprisingly, most of the officials who make up the apparatus see Gorbachev’s strategy as a serious threat to themselves. If it succeeds, they are likely to lose their power and their jobs, and in some cases to face disgrace or even prison. Many of them see radical perestroika as being dangerous to the point of irresponsibility, threatening the future of Party rule as well as the physical integrity of the country. It is, they claim, like an airplane which has taken off without its pilot having any idea where he is going to land. For these reasons, anti-Gorbachev forces have formed over the last two and a half years in virtually all Soviet institutions from the Central Committee of the Party to the armed forces.

How then has Gorbachev been warding off the clear political threat that these forces represent? His long-term solution, as I have said, is to develop a broad base of popular suport that would be able to check and neutralize them. But the continuing failure of perestroika to provide people with effective incentives and a higher standard of living means that this solution is still not working. So up to now he has had to use more negative tactics; he has been trying to prevent different groups of conservatives from consolidating themselves into a coalition that could sabotage his program and perhaps topple him from power.

Last September, Gorbachev’s frustration became palpable and intense. A speech to senior officials in charge of the press and television on September 23 revealed his more authoritarian instincts. Simultaneously defensive and aggressive, he hectored them to do as they were told:

There is a vast inertia in society, it has built up over decades. It will need a colossal effort to get the country out of this condition…. What are the tasks of the party and the press? First, it is essential to provide the organization and ideological support for the policy of perestroika, and decisively to head off attempts to discredit it…. The press…must resolutely avoid incorrect approaches and the compiling of “hair-raising” stories. That is just what the conservatives and the fair-weather progressives are waiting for! Both types will gloat and say: “We told you perestroika was a far-fetched idea and would produce nothing—we told you all along!”

Thus opponents from the left and the right have become “bed-fellows.” Both “leftists” and “rightists” are sowing confusion in society and attacking perestroika.

At times Gorbachev sounded like Khrushchev haranguing intellectuals in 1962 and 1963, hardly aware of the contradictions he was uttering—sometimes within a single paragraph. Glasnost, for example, was to be both unconfined and confined:

We are not talking about any kind of limits on glasnost or democracy. What limits? Glasnost in the interest of the people and socialism should be without limits. I repeat—in the interests of the people and socialism.

Elsewhere, ironically, his more intelligent and democratic qualities broke through, underscoring the threatening tone of the rest of the speech:

It is essential to rid society’s consciousness of that most harmful complex—faith in a “benevolent tsar,” an omnipotent center, someone imposing order from above and organizing perestroika.

Earlier he had explicitly admitted the continuing need for an “omnipotent center,” in a way that foreshadowed his imminent Putsch:

We can see that some problems are not going to be solved until we intervene in the old way, as we did before. But what can you do? That’s life.6

The coup came a week later, in early October, at brief meetings of the Central Committee and the Supreme Soviet, which were suddenly called on successive days. In a series of clandestinely planned moves he ousted some opponents and curbed the power of others, notably his potential rival Yegor Ligachev. He promoted some of his supporters, especially Anatoly Lukyanov, whom he elevated to the Party Politburo and the senior vice-presidency of the Supreme Soviet. He effectively abolished the Party’s main executive body and nerve center, the Secretariat, and, without inviting discussion by the Central Committee, replaced it by a weaker organization answerable chiefly to himself. He had himself “elected” as president of the Supreme Soviet with not a word of debate. At the same time, without acknowledging that his purpose was to reduce sharply the power of the Central Committee and the entire Party apparatus, he followed through on a policy initiated earlier, and declared to the Supreme Soviet that the hierarchy of legislative soviets, the locally elected councils, must, along with their executive governmental organs,

become the real and supreme masters on their own territory, and correct the abnormal situation that has arisen in many places as a result of dictatorship by central ministries.7

His failure to add that the emasculation of the soviets since 1919 was the result of their constant domination by the Party as well as by the government ministries served to emphasize the extreme sensitivity of this planned assault on the prerogatives of the Party apparatus. True, Gorbachev’s momentous strategy of trying to transfer most day-to-day power from the Party to the soviets has made only slight progress since last fall, and may ultimately fail. But the threat must seem real enough to the Party apparatus. Gorbachev is, after all, now the head of the hierarchy of soviets as well as of the Party. This change, which recalls Khrushchev’s taking the office of premier as well as Party leader in 1958, gives him additional freedom of maneuver.

Certainly the same speech showed that he intended to impress people with his increased power and authority. Acute impatience and a populist, almost demagogic tone permeated his oratory:

We can no longer get by with just stormy discussions and meetings and analyses of past mistakes. We need practical movement ahead and a genuine improvement of the situation in all aspects of our work…. The working people are not satisfied with the way our soviets and economic bodies, our public organizations, and many Party committees work….

Nothing can be put off till a later date. Whatever can be done today must be attended to and decided on by the soviets at all levels.

Gorbachev’s plot had apparently begun at least three weeks before, when Ligachev and others went off on their long summer vacations. But when Gorbachev spoke to the press and television officials on September 23, he gave little away. He referred to two forthcoming Central Committee plenary meetings on specific themes, but dropped no hint that the next meeting would in fact take place only a week later, on September 30. Even senior politicians like Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze were not informed of the plenum until September 27, and several had to scurry back early from foreign trips. As for the Supreme Soviet, its next session had been announced for October 27, yet suddenly it was set for October 1.

The meetings themselves were planned and conducted with military precision. Each was stage-managed down to the last detail, and ended within an hour. All participants knew they would risk reprisals if they did not not keep quiet and raise their hands obediently for each of the many votes. All did so. Glasnost and democracy were absent. This combination of political ruthlessness, secretive planning, and public railroading has certainly been noted by Gorbachev’s opponents, and may well rebound against him at some point in the future. Nothing so daring, it seems, has occurred in Soviet politics since the palace coup that ousted Khrushchev in 1964.

  1. 1

    Translated from a Perm newspaper by Paul Quinn-Judge, The Christian Science Monitor (December 29, 1988).

  2. 2

    Sakharov said that the failure of perestroika would inevitably lead to Soviet expansionism, and that “would be a catastrophe from which would arise a great threat to all humanity” (The Times, London, November 8, 1988). Dubcek was summarized as saying that “the defeat of the Soviet leader’s efforts could result in a period of neo-Stalinism” (Reuters, November 14, 1988).

  3. 3

    Agence France Presse, Paris (June 17, 1989).

  4. 4

    Resisting Gorbachev,” The New York Review (August 18, 1988). See also my earlier commentaries in the October 10, 1985, and May 28, 1987, issues.

  5. 5

    For a detailed analysis of this conference see Chapter 7 by Seweryn Bialer in a book edited by him, Politics, Society, and Nationality Inside Gorbachev’s Russia (Westview Press, 1989).

  6. 6

    Pravda (September 25, 1988).

  7. 7

    Pravda (October 2, 1988).

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