The autumn of 1990 seemed to promise improvement in the Soviet political climate, and a transition to new kinds of economic relations appeared at last to be under way. Today we have to realize that this transitional stage consists of two processes that are at once interrelated and independent. The first is the transition from empire to a commonwealth of independent states, and the second is the transition from a centralized, planned economy to a market economy and private enterprise.
For the first time in five years this autumn we saw the start of a concrete program for dealing with our growing difficulties. The economic program of the economist Stanislav Shatalin—albeit controversial in many respects, including some of its basic premises—offered the Supreme Soviet a chance to deal radically with economic problems by setting a five-hundred-day timetable for making fundamental changes in much of the economy. The agreement in late August between Gorbachev and Yeltsin was also an encouraging event. It was perceived as an agreement between the central government and the republics, primarily the Russian federation of which Yeltsin is president. Without such an agreement no further progress is possible in principle.
But no less important was the possibility that the potential dialogue between Gorbachev and Yeltsin could become the start of a center-left coalition. That the agreement between Gorbachev and Yeltsin could be seen as a symbolic manifestation of the potential cooperation between the left and the center is very important from my point of view, since I believe such cooperation is absolutely necessary if we are to surmount our enormous problems. The agreement between Gorbachev and Yeltsin also seemed to pose an obstacle to both chaos and authoritarian rule.
However, these glimpses of fragile hope for our society were blurred by intense new conflicts, which by the end of November ended in a presidential act that I can call by no other name than a step toward dictatorship.
How did this new development come about? In September and October our politics had taken another turn, toward a sharp conservative reaction. I attribute this to the attempt to exert strong pressure on Gorbachev. And there is no contradiction here with what I have said elsewhere—that Gorbachev himself was conservative enough not to be threatened by the pressure of conservative forces from outside his own circle. It is otherwise very difficult to explain both his rejection of the Shatalin program in late October—the only plausible program in the present circumstances—and his attempts to combine the Shatalin plan, for which he himself had a marked preference, with the government program sponsored by Nikolai Ryzhkov, which was altogether incompatible with Shatalin’s program.
At the same time, the coalition of conservative and reactionary forces has been gathering strength. I mean the Party apparat, the KGB, the military-industrial complex, and the generals. There were threatening troop movements in the fall—that is perfectly clear now. The confusion and bewilderment the generals displayed when they spoke earlier this year at the Supreme Soviet against depoliticizing the army were replaced in November by a clear and implacable voice expressing the firm positions of the army leadership. Colonel V. Alksnis accused the popular movements in the five Soviet republics of collaborating with the CIA. The Russian Communist party made several similarly aggressive statements. This was evidence that these forces were not in the least pleased with a radical turn in the direction of a market economy.
However, in first supporting the Shatalin plan Gorbachev was overriding the conservative government plan sponsored by Ryzhkov. The economic and social conflict in our country is thus visible in the political divisions among the top leadership. In putting aside the Shatalin plan Gorbachev capitulated yet again to the conservative forces of the country.
The obvious unsoundness of the government program, perhaps not evident to everyone at first, was left in no doubt after the government presented different versions of it three times to the Supreme Soviet, and to the people, and failed to convince them. In these circumstances an ethical and civilized government would have been forced to resign. A good question is: Why can’t the president accept this inarguable fact?
I think that beyond the great many events that could have influenced the president in his capitulation to conservative forces there is something else, something very substantial. I see at least two reasons for his “retreat” at the height of an acute crisis, and after the Russian Republic had already voted to carry out the Shatalin plan.
First, if the present government is disbanded and resigns, the next government will not be formed constitutionally, since the Supreme Soviet will not be able to create a new government. Many of the republics, apparently including the Federation of the Russian Republic (RSFSR), will avoid taking part in forming such a government. Under these conditions, unconstitutional measures would have to be taken to form a cabinet or committee under the president. And that would inevitably call into question the very existence of the Supreme Soviet of the country—a Supreme Soviet unable to form a government would be an anomaly—and therefore also of the Congress and of the presidency. This is the first reason why Gorbachev does not face reality and admit the glaring inadequacy of the present executive branch to deal with the present historical moment. Yet the government remains in place.
Another reason may be even more important: if a new government or a new cabinet were organized to carry out economic reform, it would have to call attention to the mistakes that have been made during the last five years of perestroika. It would have to do so if only to distance itself from the unfortunate experience of the previous government.
The mistakes and the scale of the collapse in which we now find ourselves have not yet been fully revealed. Many statistics are still hidden, and the most vital information has been sealed away. We know that our gold and diamond reserves are being sold. But to what extent? Yeltsin rebuked the president for such sales but his statement did not elicit any constructive information in response.
We all know that we have backed regimes in, say, Iraq, Cuba, Angola, and so on; but just what our government has done to prop them up during the last five years and to support them financially is still hidden in the bureaucratic morass.
We speak about the deformations in our economy and the colossal distortions created by the military-industrial complex, but we don’t know exactly what that monstrous complex consists of. We have no statistics on the proportion of the gross national product that it consumes, nor do we know how many people are employed by it, or what it has been doing during the last five years. To this day we still do not know the extent of the weakness of the industries that are supposed to provide the necessities of life—food, light industry, and so on. We have to guess.
All these questions demand answers. The experience of Eastern Europe reveals that its people are prepared to demand answers and to seek reparations from those who created the harsh conditions in their countries. I am not in favor of bloodshed or of new acts of repression in the name of “justice.” But it is important to realize that an awakened popular consciousness, which is equally capable of being just or being extremist, may turn out to be dangerous both to the authorities and to society. Our government, in my view, has become panicky, afraid to stand before the people and reveal what it has done during the last five years. A new executive could reveal all this; and a wave of popular wrath could then sweep away not only Ryzhkov but Gorbachev as well. That is the second reason for Gorbachev’s strong defense of the present, ineffectual government.
We do not have an elected executive branch. The Supreme Soviet and the Congress of People’s Deputies do not reflect the moods and tendencies of today’s society and therefore do not adequately represent society. No clear distinction of functions exists among the government, the president, the presidium of the Supreme Soviet, the Presidential Council, and so on. Executive power cannot be exercised through a clear line of vertical authority. As a result, presidential action is inadequate—almost all presidential decrees (except for the decree permitting investments) rescind or replace the resolutions of the Council of Ministers, the executive branch. Incompetent resolutions and decrees therefore subvert one another at all levels of government and the result is the paralysis of the executive power and chaos. The functional disequilibrium of the entire social system is pushing it toward a free fall, a state of entropy, in which elemental forces naturally grow more powerful. I am worried not so much by the president’s mistakes or indecisiveness as by the functional inability of society to move forward within the present power structure, especially during what we hope will be the current transition to a fundamentally new economy—the essential component of any new system.
The requirements of this transitional stage need to be formulated legally. Unless we have specific deadlines and administrative mechanisms to carry out a transition we will remain stuck in our current condition of self-destructive drift. I believe we must go beyond this and move toward both a new constitution and a new agency to coordinate relations with, and among, the republics and to try to bring about agreement among them.
Executive power on the Union level has obviously exhausted itself in its current form. Strictly speaking, a Union Council of Ministers is not necessary. Much more needed is an entirely new and flexible body that would function as a center, or committee—what it is called is not the point—to coordinate a strategy for establishing horizontal ties among the republics. Or it could be a committee drawn from the various republics themselves that would coordinate their policies. In any case such a committee should carry out only the functions that are delegated to it by the republics (or other units, if any are formed). If one were to conceive an optimistic sequence of events, such an agency could become the basis for a possible government based on agreement among the republics.
And here we can begin to see the logic behind the contradictions that face us.
The only way out of the difficulties we are in is through the joint efforts of all the republics. The economy of the Soviet Union can be compared to an enormous factory and the regions and republics as different shops within that factory. Such an economy can function only in more or less coordinated rhythms. It is not suited, unfortunately, to independent, autonomous actions. Gigantic regions are incapable of functioning alone—Kazakhstan has basically been turned into a source of raw materials and Uzbekistan, an enormous republic with a large population, is hostage to its cotton monoculture and is unable to exist independently. In effect, over 80 percent of the production of the Ukraine is put to use by the central government, especially its energy, coal, and so on. This situation prevails everywhere, and we still only know about it superficially. If we are shown what has been concealed, it will be clear how many of the connections between people and their regional economic resources have been broken, and what the real situation is in entire regions and branches of industry.