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Soviets: Both Continuity and Vitality

15 minute read
Strobe Talbott

Once again the sad music, followed by the ritual, seen before, only speeded up and muted this time. The surviving leaders seemed so impatient to bury the departed one that they were almost rude to his memory. They were even more impatient to name his successor. In particular, this successor. Here, finally, was a General Secretary who could go on vacation to his native Northern Caucasus without the world wondering whether he was on a dialysis machine or a respirator. There would be no more jokes about George Bush having a season ticket to Kremlin funerals, and the programmers at Radio Moscow could broadcast Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique without fearing that it would touch off rumors of an imminent solemn announcement.

Quite appropriately, much of the commentary last week dwelled on Gorbachev’s relative youth. After all, his age was one of the few things that outsiders knew for sure about him. Even the CIA’s biographical file was, according to one agency official, “pathetically thin and unhelpful–a monument to how little we still know about that damn place and the people who run it.”

One thing the West does know about the Soviet Union is that the people who run it cling to their posts either until their comrades turn against them and throw them out, as happened with Georgi Malenkov and Nikita Khrushchev, or until Comrade Death intervenes, as occurred with Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and, last week, with Konstantin Chernenko. One of the more ironic flaws of the Soviet system is that while it is dedicated to the acquisition, consolidation and extension of power, while it prides itself on discipline and the subordination of the individual to the institution, it is incapable of providing for the timely transfer of power as leaders grow old and sick.

The Politburo has often been compared with the board of directors of a stodgy American corporation. But one important difference is that Marxism-Leninism Inc. has yet to meet that rudimentary requirement of good business, a procedure for ensuring smooth management succession. Soviet leaders love to award one another ribbons and stars and medals, but never gold watches. Retirement seems a dishonorable estate, a form of internal banishment. So Khrushchev discovered. So Brezhnev no doubt recalled as he grew feeble. Andropov after him. And then Konstantin Chernenko.

That is one of the reasons why the aged leaders of the Soviet Union’s Old Guard have, until now, found it so hard to let power pass from their generation to the next. In choosing a younger man, they would be weakening themselves: he would have time to build up his own power base and patronage network, which would gradually impinge on theirs. That is probably why they chose Chernenko 13 months ago. Indeed, they could have exercised the same option last week, turning to Andrei Gromyko, 75, or Viktor Grishin, 70.

But that would have meant running the risk of having to play the sad music again next year or the year after, and that possibility was finally more than they could bear. If the world is getting somewhat bored with Kremlin funerals, the men who act as pallbearers are surely terrified of them. Not only do the ceremonies serve as a kind of collective memento mori, but they are the outward manifestation of an inner process that must be highly traumatic. The Soviet leaders are among the most conservative on earth. They hate uncertainty, they loathe unpredictability. Leadership transitions are fraught with both. So this time around, they decided to cope with the dilemma by going to Gorbachev. That way, they hoped, the system could at least stave off another transition for a long time. Gorbachev, in short, offered the prospect of institutional longevity.

Columbia University Kremlinologist Seweryn Bialer was in Moscow just before Chernenko’s death. “The most overwhelming impression,” he says, “was one of gloom. It was the gloom that accompanies the paralysis of leadership. Even before Gorbachev was selected, there was already a cult of personality around him, the hope that he would be able to get the Soviet Union moving again and to keep it moving. In my opinion, that was as important a factor in his quick victory as the votes of loyalty that he got from the Politburo. It was a question of the mood of the elite. They needed somebody like him, not another member of the Old Guard. At the same time, Gorbachev is a very good tactician. It was crucial to his success that a year ago, when Chernenko was selected, Gorbachev became his close ally and never offended the others in the Old Guard.”

How much time Gorbachev has to make his mark is, of course, impossible to predict. If he lives as long as Chernenko, and if he stays in the good graces of his colleagues in the Politburo, he could be a leader for decades to come. And because he is young and likely to be around for quite some time, there is a natural tendency to see him as a herald of change. To some extent he is, and the change is already evident. Now that the junior member of the Politburo has become the senior partner, the collective leadership cannot be ridiculed quite so easily as a gerontocracy. No longer will Kremlinology be largely a death watch; no longer will political analysts be consulting quite so closely with medical experts as they try to interpret events in Moscow.

The principal augury out of the Kremlin last week was not one of change, certainly not change in the sense of sweeping internal reform and more accommodating patterns of behavior abroad. Quite the contrary, everything that Gorbachev has said–and everything that can be read between the lines –suggests that his accession heralds not change but continuity in the substance of Soviet policy, particularly foreign policy.

In his inaugural speech to the Central Committee, Gorbachev avoided harsh rhetoric: he refrained from excoriating the U.S. and made clear his desire, if possible, to concentrate the nation’s attention and responses on its massive and impacted domestic problems. At the same time, however, he had no good news for the likes of the banned Solidarity trade union movement in Poland. He vowed his determination to “expand cooperation with socialist states, to enhance the role and influence of socialism in world affairs.” That amounted to a reminder to Poles that it was precisely Soviet “cooperation” with the Warsaw military authorities that drove Solidarity underground.

By extending “our sympathies” to liberation movements in the Third World, he also served notice that the Soviet Union would continue to provide more than just sympathy to the Sandinistas of Nicaragua, the Marxist rulers of Ethiopia, the Viet Nam-backed puppet government of Kampuchea and the Babrak Karmal regime of Afghanistan. In effect, Gorbachev was offering his own rejoinder to the Reagan doctrine of American support for anti-Communist guerrilla movements.

Gorbachev also shook the big stick. During a meeting with Pakistan’s President Zia ul-Haq, in Moscow for the funeral, the General Secretary issued a thinly veiled warning that the U.S.S.R. might actively foment trouble inside Pakistan if its government continues to cooperate with the U.S. in supporting the insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan. Reporting on the meeting, the Soviet news agency TASS said that “aggressive actions” against Afghanistan “cannot but affect in the most negative way Soviet-Pakistani relations.”

On the issue of East-West relations, Gorbachev echoed a Kremlin theme of the past year: eagerness for improvement, but on Soviet terms. And those terms show no sign of changing. Gorbachev’s Kremlin, like Brezhnev’s a decade ago, wants peaceful coexistence and detente, largely so that the leadership can tend to the economy. The U.S.S.R. desires recognition as a superpower, equal in status and privilege with the U.S. It also wants what Soviet spokesmen call “compensation” for various perceived or alleged geopolitical disadvantages and grievances. In practice, the twin claims of equality and compensation mean that the Soviet Union is constantly looking for ways to enhance its security and its wider interests at the expense of others, especially of the U.S. and its allies.

The Soviets believe, for example, that they should be able to invade and occupy Afghanistan because it adjoins a border where they feel vulnerable to Chinese subversion and Islamic upheaval. Never mind that an American ally, Pakistan, as well as vital American interests in the Persian Gulf, is jeopardized as a result. The Soviets claim the right to have “fraternal” relations with Fidel Castro, whose rule they underwrite to the tune of about $11 million a day, but they accept no responsibility for his mischief making in Latin America and Africa. They insist on cosponsoring with the U.S. any negotiated settlement in the Middle East, while they continue to back the most radical Arab enemies of Israel. In Western Europe, they are trying, by a combination of political blandishment and military blackmail, to diminish and, if possible, supplant American influence. Is that particular aspiration consistent with the principle of superpower equality? Absolutely, say the Soviets. The U.S.S.R. is a European nation; the U.S. is not. Therefore Soviet power “belongs” on the Continent; American power and missiles do not.

These were the main features of Brezhnev’s foreign policy, of Andropov’s and Chernenko’s, and now they are surely of Gorbachev’s as well. The real question is not whether he will pursue a course different from that taken by his predecessors, but whether he will pursue it more effectively. The answer is more likely to be yes than no. Since he injects the continuity of Soviet policy with a vitality that it has lacked in recent years, he may also bring to the Soviet-American competition more energy, skill and ingenuity than his recent predecessors, in their decrepitude, could muster.

In the realm of foreign policy, Gorbachev’s selection should, above all, be interpreted as a reassertion of Soviet determination to compete vigorously with the U.S. and other adversaries and to sustain that competition, under a single leader, over a long time. That is the real signal in Gorbachev’s age and in the prospect of his being around long after his septuagenarian comrades, not to mention a septuagenarian American President, have departed from the scene.

A possible irony in last week’s events is that the Reagan Administration may have inadvertently contributed to the decision of the old men in Moscow to pick a youngster as their first among equals. For much of Reagan’s first term, U.S. officials pounded away at claims that the Soviet Union is not only an evil empire but an empire in decline and that what the Soviets call “the correlation of forces” is in fact shifting in favor of the West. In a speech to Members of the British Parliament in June 1982, Reagan hailed “the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history.” In January, Secretary of State George Shultz told a Senate committee, “It is the Communist system that looks bankrupt, morally as well as economically; the West is resilient and resurgent.”

There is much evidence to support Reagan’s and Shultz’s claims. The Soviet Union is beset by economic and demographic troubles at home, as well as reversals and quagmires abroad. Still, the truth hurts–all the more so when it comes from the West. A Soviet official traveling with Politburo Member Vladimir Shcherbitsky during his visit to the U.S. two weeks ago commented privately that American “boasts and taunts” about the correlation of forces have been “the single most offensive and provocative lie of propaganda that we have had to put up with these past few years.”

Quite possibly part of the Politburo’s purpose in choosing Gorbachev is to put a damper on such talk. According to Arnold Horelick, the director of the Rand Corp./UCLA Center for the Study of Soviet International Behavior, “Gorbachev is being picked as an embodiment of characteristics that the Soviets want to be associated with–dynamism, optimism, confidence.”

As though to confirm that interpretation, a Soviet diplomat last week gloated over the contrast between Gorbachev’s age and Reagan’s: “Now if there’s a | summit, it will be your old leader sitting down with our young one. You might say we are turning the tables on you after all these years, going back to the meeting between John Kennedy and Khrushchev in 1961.”

Well before his formal accession, Gorbachev and the managers of his image had launched a campaign to present him as someone with whom the West could do business. Horelick predicts that Gorbachev will be a “smooth, persuasive purveyor of antihistamines for our nuclear allergies,” that is, proposals in arms control that will appeal to nervous Europeans and perhaps nervous Americans too, while not compromising the objectives of Soviet policy.

In this regard, Andropov’s brief tenure may have provided a hint of what the West can expect from Gorbachev. Andropov’s ascendance, too, occasioned high hopes in the West. The code words of wishful thinking were the same: moderate, pragmatist, technocrat, sophisticate. Within a day of his selection, there was talk of an Andropov era, a phrase that suggested a clean and welcome break with the past. His style seemed fresh and that, it was assumed, connoted a change in the content of Soviet policy. Here was a Soviet leader who would be comfortable and stimulating on the Georgetown cocktail circuit, and who would therefore be equally easy to get along with at a summit.

Andropov never had much of a chance. But even before he was purged by Comrade Death, he demonstrated that the change he represented was very much one of style and not of substance. The preoccupying issue of Soviet-American relations in those days of late 1982 and early to mid-1983 was the prospective deployment of new U.S. ballistic and cruise missiles in Western Europe. Under Brezhnev, Soviet policy had been absolutely uncompromising, and absolutely unacceptable: the U.S., said the Soviets, had no right to deploy even a single Euromissile.

Immediately upon taking over from Brezhnev, Andropov seized that policy and made it his own. He issued a series of proposals that were almost Reaganesque in the alluring way in which they combined simplicity and ingenuity. He played numbers games with the European nuclear balance, promising subtractions from the Soviet side if the U.S. would cancel the addition of its own missiles; he offered an equation that was supposed to yield equality, but in fact would have left the Soviet Union with a significant advantage in key categories of weaponry and would have succeeded in keeping the U.S. from deploying any offsetting weapons of its own.

In short, Andropov applied his considerable skills to the task of repackaging the hard line, not to softening it. His cleverness failed about the same time as his kidneys. The Euromissile deployment went ahead on schedule at the end of 1983, just as Andropov was becoming a disembodied voice communicating to the world and to his own people through ghostwritten Pravda “interviews.”

Just as Andropov assumed Brezhnev’s stonewalling position on the Euromissiles, Gorbachev has inherited Chernenko’s adamancy on the central arms-control issue of today: space weapons and strategic defenses. The Soviets are just as determined to block the U.S.’s Star Wars program as the Reagan Administration is determined to see that it goes forward. There is no reason to expect that Gorbachev will be more yielding than Chernenko. In his inaugural speech last week, Gorbachev stressed his opposition to “the development of ever new weapons systems, be it in space or on earth.”

The Soviets have a number of reasons for opposing Star Wars. They are fearful of American technological prowess and they are prone to dote on worst-case scenarios. Reagan’s dream of space-based battle stations that could zap missiles out of the sky is a Soviet military planner’s nightmare. In order to counter such a U.S. capability, the Soviets would have to expand and overhaul their entire offensive arsenal and probably undertake a huge defensive buildup of their own. The mega-rubles involved would have to be diverted from the nonmilitary sectors of the economy, where Gorbachev faces so many challenges.

In much the same way that his mentor and predecessor Andropov was a skillful conductor of the anti-Euromissile campaign, Gorbachev is likely to be a deft opponent of Star Wars. Once again, the campaign will be pitched largely to the West Europeans who are skittish about the possibility that Star Wars research will lead to testing and deployment of systems that will provoke a new, extraterrestrial arms race.

On that issue, as on others, Gorbachev will be a more effective front man for Soviet policy than Chernenko was, or than other members of the Old Guard would be. In that respect, he will be a more formidable adversary. Insofar as he really does bring to the top level of the Soviet leadership more dynamism and pragmatism, he will put those qualities to work in the service primarily of competition, not conciliation. Yes, he is someone with whom the West can do business. But it is the same tedious, difficult, sometimes dangerous business as before–the business of managing a rivalry with a country that is too powerful to fight but too inimical to appease and often too insecure to accommodate.

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