A Manifesto for Soviet Democracy

The Declaration of the Democratic Platform Group, published below, has been circulating in the Soviet Union as a leaflet to promote candidates favoring democratic reform who are running in the elections to a special Party Congress this spring. This dissident manifesto was first released at the end of January, but by the end of February, it still had not been published in any Soviet paper. The groups that are circulating it appear to have considerable support throughout the Soviet Union. On Sunday, February 25, “prodemocracy” demonstrations making largely the same demands as the ones in the manifesto, and organized in part by some of the people who had drafted it, were attended by hundreds of thousands of people in at least thirty Soviet cities. The coming Party elections, and the simultaneous elections to local state governing bodies, are occurring at what is undoubtedly a crucial moment in the five-year history of perestroika; and the declaration raises central questions about the direction in which the Soviet system is now moving and how developments there are to be understood abroad.

From President George Bush to President Václav Havel, a consensus has emerged that the time has come for the West to “help the Soviet Union” in the arduous task of reform. As Havel put it before the US Congress, “A country that rightfully gave people nightmares” should now be helped along its “immensely complicated road to democracy”; the Soviet system must be aided to make the transition from “totalitarianism” to “genuine political pluralism” and a “workable—that is, a market—economy.” Or as a young Soviet scholar recently said, “Our problem is to get from the world of Orwell to a normal life.”

But how should the Soviet Union be helped? Through what institutions? And to what groups in the Soviet Union should Western support go?

The United States government, obviously, must deal principally with the Soviet government, with Chairman Gorbachev, and with official institutions trying to carry out perestroika. Both the citizens of the Soviet Union and the world community have an immense stake in Gorbachev’s survival. At a minimum he must continue in power in order to ensure public order in a country now threatened with descent into anarchy; and he may even be able to carry forward the now irreversible process of transition to a new society, as Havel hopes. In any case his fall from power could call into question both the withdrawal of Soviet control in Eastern Europe and the fast-emerging détente with the West.

Yet as a result of the policy of glasnost sponsored by Gorbachev himself, the official leadership is no longer the only, or even perhaps the leading, actor on the Soviet scene. During the past two years innumerable “informal” organizations, voluntary associations, and even protopolitical parties have sprung up across the Soviet Union’s eleven time zones. These different groups are known collectively as “civil society.”

The civil society of classic European political theory has been redefined in Eastern Europe, first by KOR and Solidarity in Poland after 1976, and, after 1988, in the Soviet Union, to mean social groups and voluntary associations organized independently of, and in opposition to, the Communist party-state. The Baltic “popular fronts” demanding independence and democracy are one manifestation of this rebirth of civil society. The Memorial group, dedicated to commemorating the victims of Soviet repression, is another. (Even the hatemongering Pamyat and various black-market mafias should be understood as the sinister side of the same phenomenon.) In this new situation, Western civic groups could give support to the emerging democratic organizations in the USSR, as they once did for Solidarity in Poland.

Western businesses are already entering into joint ventures with Soviet ministries, with some possible benefit to the Soviet economy; but in many cases the more likely impact of such ventures will be to prop up the gigantic Gogolesque Soviet bureaucracy, the chief obstacle to genuine reform of the system. Other private Western groups might be able to do better by aiding the forces outside the state sector. Indeed, people from the Baltic and Armenian communities abroad have already contributed funds, computers, and supplies to local “popular fronts.” Independent Western organizations—such as Helsinki Watch groups, labor unions, Pen clubs, the social projects backed by the Soros Foundation, churches, and, in some cases, Western political parties—could take part in similar activities in Russia and other parts of the Soviet Union.

To do so they will need to know much more about the variety and aspirations of these recently organized civic groups. And here Western reporting on Russia has often concentrated unduly on Gorbachev himself and on official reform programs. The most recent case in point is the attention given to the decision of the Central Committee Plenum in early February to abandon—or consider abandoning—Article 6 of the constitution, which establishes the Party’s “leading role” in society. Another example has been the optimistic commentary on the draft program for the Party Congress tentatively scheduled for June of this year. Both of these actions by the Plenum were generally interpreted in the West as major steps toward a multi-party system and an effective market economy.

Such is hardly the view of many critics in the Soviet Union, particularly on the “left,” that is, among independent-minded reform activists, many of them still in the Party, who followed the views first put forward by the late Andrei Sakharov. Among such people the Plenum’s decisions are widely viewed not as genuine steps toward a multi-party system, but as tactical moves by the Party leadership for a showdown with the “Brezhnevite dead souls” now opposing reform within the decomposing Party, a showdown designed to transform the less conservative elements of the Party into a base for a newly powerful Gorbachev presidency. These critics therefore oppose Gorbachev’s recent measures to create a stronger presidency, with emergency powers as a potentially dangerous move because it is as yet unaccompanied by a convincing program of economic and social reform. And the current fight within the Party is viewed by the same critics on the left as part of a broader struggle for leadership of a similarly decomposing society, in a now almost desperate, and hardly promising, effort to achieve genuine transformation of moribund Soviet institutions.

In this view, the official perestroika of the past five years has been largely rhetoric, without convincing political and, especially, economic substance. As one of the most perceptive Soviet experts, the Berkeley economist Gregory Grossman, recently put it, the immediate issue is whether the country can be pulled out of “the worst economic crisis it has faced for decades.”

An urgent and basic need in the economy is reform of its whole system, but its most immediate problem is “stabilization”—emergency measures to pull it back from the edge of economic collapse and from the consequent, imminent danger of violent social explosion.

The severe food shortage just admitted by Moscow is only one measure of the emergency. There are critical situations with regard to fuel, transport, many industrial materials, hard currency and so forth, as well as low public morale and frayed nerves.

The major reason for this dire situation is that the official economy is caught between price control on the one hand and a runaway increase in purchasing power…on the other. The price control is effective enough to inhibit enterprise and initiative, but not effective enough to hold down price inflation, giving the country the worst of both worlds.

Any attempt to combat these ills by traditional Soviet means ensures the perpetuation of bureaucratic controls. All this aggravates the economic situation as well as blocking the longer term efforts toward badly needed marketization and liberalization. Only corruption, the underground economy and the Soviet “mafia” are flourishing.1

Recently much has been made in the Soviet and Western press of the appointment of a highly qualified market economist, Nikolai Petrakov, as Gorbachev’s personal economic advisor. Soviet commentators have expressed the hope that Petrakov will now be able to deal with the deep failures of the Soviet economic system. But this will not happen if, as so far seems likely, Petrakov serves as little more than a symbolic counterweight to Prime Minister Ryzhkov, while leaving intact Ryzhkov’s command economy programs, which have all the defects pointed out by Professor Grossman.

It is in view of such confusion of rhetoric with substance that critics who previously gathered around Sakharov and now support the declaration that appears below have concluded that Gorbachev must be put under further pressure from the left to move beyond words to deeds. Some of them are calling for direct elections to the presidency, which Gorbachev may want to convert to a powerful executive position from which to challenge the Party bureaucracy. But if he does not show himself able or willing to make serious changes by the time of the June Party Congress, then the “left communist” groups supporting the declaration seem prepared to bolt the Party and to work outside the existing system as a full-fledged opposition. They would thus take their place alongside existing non-Party, opposition groups, such as the relatively small but growing Democratic Union, which was formed, mainly by young idealists, in May 1988 to work for Western-style constitutional government.

The declaration printed below was issued in the name of Party clubs and organizations in “103 cities and 13 union republics,” a very large number for any independent Soviet movement. These organizations, moreover, are lower echelon groups that have been organized as grass-roots units and not by the regular apparat, which functions under the command structure of “democratic centralism,” that is, from the top down. For this reason the groups issuing the declaration describe themselves as “horizontal.” The exact number of these proliferating clubs and of their membership is unknown, probably even to their leaders. But it must be assumed to be large and growing, from the demonstrations of February 25, when, according to the London Financial Times correspondent, notwithstanding strong official opposition, “a huge crowd of some 150,000 gathered in Moscow…and thousands more in big towns and cities from Vladivostok in the far east to Minsk in the west.” Among the demonstrating groups, the Financial Times noted, were members of the “Democratic Platform Group in the Communist Party”; the loose coalition that organized the recent mass meetings had initially conceived of them as a “Minsk to Moscow” chain of coordinated demonstrations in imitation of the human chain from “Tallin to Vilnius” in which over a million people in the Baltic states took part last August.

Such demonstrations and movements in the Soviet heartland are obviously not without serious dangers: they could provoke disorders and provide the occasion for an authoritarian crackdown. But the organizers of the movement evidently feel that the situation is already so far gone that the risk is worth taking. Some have said that the exasperation of their followers makes such political action the safest possible outlet. They hope that Gorbachev, with his instincts for political realism, will give way to their pressures as he did to those of the Balts. When asked about the risks they take, the leaders of the group point out that for all the players in the Soviet game at present any serious political position is a high-risk venture.

This dissident coalition within the Party is related to the “Interregional Group,” now also called the “Democratic Platform” in the Soviet Congress of Peoples’ Deputies. The spiritual godfather of the “Democratic Platform” is Andrei Sakharov. Though he was never a Communist himself, his speech to the People’s Congress of June 1989 2 was the forerunner of the present declaration. Among the most prominent members of this diverse group are Yuri Afanasiev, the wellknown historian and radical democrat; Gavriil Popov, a leading advocate of a market economy; Anatoli Sobchak, the Leningrad law professor who advocates strong constitutional protection of rights; and the most visible populist, not to say demogogic, orator, Boris Yeltsin.

The purpose of both the declaration and such dissident leaders is to abolish the Party’s “leading role,” not just in words, but in institutional fact. If it can be carried out, this program would mark the beginning of the peaceful, step-by-step liquidation of the Soviet system along the lines of what is occurring elsewhere in Eastern Europe. As such, the declaration obviously goes far beyond the long draft program for the Party Congress endorsed at the recent Plenum, which took up eight columns in Pravda on February 13. The official document (not yet adequately reported on or analyzed by the American press) hedges on the essential issues. It mentions, but does not take clear positions on, a transition to the market and real prices, denationalization and private property, political pluralism and constitutional government, the rule of law, a genuine Soviet confederation, and the end of the nomenklatura and its monopoly of power.

It is clear that the Democratic Platform’s declaration was issued in late January to make a strong statement on each of these issues, all of which the reformers expected the Plenum would equivocate on. Indeed, the official program of February, though still full of qualifications and opaque conditional language, responds in some measure to the demands of the declaration. The recent demonstrations and the declaration itself suggest the main lines on which the battle between cosmetic reform and real reform will be fought at the June Congress.

Why should not Western voluntary associations also exercise pressure, as Havel asks, for a genuine democratization of Russia—just as they do in the case of South Africa and the Philippines? International democratic solidarity will not go unnoticed by a government now highly sensitive to Western opinion. But of course such pressure can only be secondary to domestic Soviet efforts; and in those efforts the declaration and its backers can be seen as the Soviet counterparts to the campaigns led by Solidarity and Havel’s Charter 77 to transform the upside-down socialist world in which they lived.

March 1, 1990

  1. 1

    Pluralism Will Not Solve the Crisis,” The San Francisco Chronicle, February 21, 1990.

  2. 2

    See The New York Review, August 17, 1989.