Russia After Perestroika

On April 24, 1991, Pravda published the text of a joint statement signed by Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federal Republic, as well as the leaders of Byelorussia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kirgizia, and Turkenistan. Georgia and the Baltic Republics were notably absent, but nine out of the fifteen Soviet republics signed the statement, representing 98.6 percent of the USSR’s territory and 92.7 percent of its population.

That Yeltsin had called for Gorbachev’s resignation only a few days before made the publication of the joint declaration seem all the more dramatic; for it said, in effect, that whatever their former differences, the signers were now determined that the country recover from a deep crisis—specifically, “social and interethnic conflicts, plummeting production, decline in people’s living standards,” and the “serious disruption of law and order.” The government’s own “mistakes committed in the course of perestroika” had contributed to the crisis, the statement admitted, and it proposed a broad five-point program aimed at resolving it.

On the one hand the declaration promised to rescind the highly unpopular 5 percent sales tax, imposed last January to soak up money, and to lower the price increases on foodstuffs and other consumer goods that had gone into effect only three weeks earlier, supposedly in order to encourage farmers to put more food in the shops (e.g., a 100 percent increase in the price of milk and eggs, 200 in the price of meat, and 300 of rye bread). It also proposed to improve the production and distribution of consumer goods.

On the other hand, the declaration spoke vaguely of the need for a “special work regime”—which sounded like the old Stalinist talk of strict factory discipline—in certain key industries, and called for a ban on all acts of “civil disobedience,” another ominous-sounding restriction in a country where public meetings in recent years have generally been allowed to take place. Specifically, it urged the nation’s coal miners, as well as other workers then on strike, to go back to work and “to make up for the losses they had caused in the immediate future.”

In one of its most unexpected passages, the joint declaration stressed the need for greater independence and autonomy on the part of the republics. Each must have the right, for instance, to control its own exports and properties. While a new Union treaty and a new USSR constitution must be created as soon as feasible, the republics should be free “to adopt additional economic measures” as they see fit. The republics that refused to sign the statement—the Baltic countries, Moldavia, Armenia, and Georgia—will be able “to independently decide” whether or not they want to join the Union. Gorbachev for a long time seemed to regard the quest for independence as some kind of malignant growth either to be cured or excised (as he apparently attempted to do by sending troops …

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