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…

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