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Soviet Union Depths of Gloom

7 minute read
George J. Church

For American legislators, going home during a recess to get an earful from their constituents is routine. For delegates to the Supreme Soviet, it is brand new, and shocking enough to help produce a near rebellion against President Mikhail Gorbachev. “I’ve been in my constituency, and there will be famine there soon, comrades, famine, a real famine!” exclaimed Valentina Gudilina, a delegate from the Moscow region, to her colleagues when they reconvened Wednesday after a 10-day break. Delegates also complained that they had heard nothing from Gorbachev about a five-hour meeting he had held a few days earlier with Russian republic leader Boris Yeltsin, although Yeltsin had told his own parliament that they had agreed in principle to form a new “coalition” government. The upshot: the parliamentarians refused even to debate any bills until Gorbachev gave a State of the Soviet Union report on the economic crisis and just what he and Yeltsin were up to.

Gorbachev complied — sort of. On Friday he delivered a finger-wagging, lectern-thumping address that was long on promises, short on specifics. Yes, Gorbachev said, he planned “to get rid of outdated, clearly useless structures” in the government and to bring into it “politicians and experts who are more popular and enjoy the widest support.” That sounded like a reference to Yeltsin, but Gorbachev coyly avoided giving any names and offered few details of what changes he really had in mind.

But after hearing successive speakers, including Yeltsin, agitate for resolute action, Gorbachev returned to the podium Saturday morning. In a brusque 15-minute speech, he proposed “an urgent, fundamental reorganization of executive power in the center by subordinating it to the President.” Gorbachev called for vesting the Federation Council, an advisory body made up of republican heads of state, with broad powers to coordinate relations between the Kremlin and the republics. Citing a nationwide disintegration of law-and-order, he suggested creating both a Presidential Security Council to oversee law enforcement and an executive task force to combat organized crime.

But Gorbachev skirted many other issues. He called for “urgent measures” to end the worsening food shortages, but offered no new ideas. In his State of the Union address, Gorbachev merely defended the watered-down reform package that was passed in October and has since been not only derided but largely ignored. He implored the republics to stop reversing his economic decrees; in fact, he added, the Supreme Soviet should enact a moratorium on all independence-oriented legislation. But the idea that any such ban would be obeyed is so farfetched as to call into question whether Gorbachev understands how far the republics have broken away from the Kremlin.

Gorbachev left legislators to speculate whether Yeltsin’s influence in the new executive branch would be limited to his seat on the enhanced Federation Council or would include some greater form of power sharing. On Friday Yeltsin displayed little tolerance for waiting games. He followed Gorbachev to the podium and warned that the President “must stop making mistakes and clinging to the old system . . . the economic and political crisis in the country has come to a head, the people’s patience is coming to an end, and an explosion could occur at any time.”

Even so, there were indications that Gorbachev and Yeltsin were groping toward some kind of accommodation. Gorbachev’s hold on public confidence seems to erode almost daily. According to a recent poll, his popularity rating has slid in the past 10 months from 52% to 21% — 3 points below Richard Nixon’s rating in the U.S. just before he resigned the presidency. Last week he was openly hooted during a speech to army officers, and a group of 22 intellectuals called on him to either act decisively or resign. But if Gorbachev can no longer govern effectively without a boost from the popular leader of the Russian republic, Yeltsin is equally incapable of putting his radical economic-reform program into effect without the cooperation of the central government.

None of which guarantees that they can in fact come to an agreement. At the moment, the main stumbling block is Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov. Yeltsin regards him as a hopeless foot dragger on reform and demands that he resign. But Gorbachev has stubbornly defended Ryzhkov, whose influence over the vast state bureaucracy makes sacking him a risk. On Saturday Ryzhkov attacked Yeltsin for pursuing a “destructive policy” but hinted that calls for his own resignation have become so frequent that the issue “requires a decision.”

Some Washington analysts question whether the tide of economic and political disintegration has gone too far for even Gorbachev and Yeltsin working together to reverse. “The current is moving faster than the boat,” says a Sovietologist, “which means they can’t steer anymore.” As if to illustrate the point, when Ryzhkov’s government issued a decree decontrolling prices of so-called luxury goods (not only jewelry and furs but also furniture and car parts), Yeltsin’s Russian government, furious at not having been consulted, immediately suspended it.

Gorbachev’s great hope for overcoming the breakaway tendency of the republics is the proposed new treaty of union. The current draft, as described by officials who are familiar with it, has some highly attractive features. It declares the new Soviet Union to be a “voluntary” association of sovereign republics to create “a state governed by law, which would serve as a guarantee against any tendency to authoritarianism and tyranny.” The republics can choose any form of government they like as long as they respect some basic human rights, including “use of native languages, unhindered access to information, freedom of religion.” It even grants the republics “the free choice of forms of property and economic management.”

Gorbachev told parliament Saturday that his proposed shake-up was necessary to restore political and economic stability until a complete restructuring of government is institutionalized by the new union treaty. In fact, some of the changes that Gorbachev called for on Saturday — the creation of a vice presidency and the enhanced Federation Council — mirror those outlined in the draft treaty. The document would also create a Cabinet of Ministers led by a Chairman and including the heads of government (rather than the heads of state) of the republics. Besides the expected control over the military, foreign policy and the like, the treaty gives the union the right to guide financial, credit and money policies and to work out an economic and social- development strategy and a budget.

Does that seem to contradict the republics’ right to “free choice of forms of . . . economic management”? Well, these central union powers are to be exercised “together with the republics” — a phrase that occurs over and over in the draft, and seems less a clarification than an invitation to conflict.

One major question: since the 1922 constitution setting up the Soviet Union * would be dissolved, would republics be able to secede merely by refusing to sign the new treaty? Grigori Revenko, a member of Gorbachev’s current Presidential Council, has suggested that the rebellious Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, at least, would not be allowed to go as easily as that; they would still have to negotiate with Moscow over property issues. And they might not be the only ones. Akaky Asatiani, a leader of the Georgian parliament, said flatly last week that Georgia “will not sign the federal treaty,” and Mircha Snegur, president of Moldavia, cast doubt on whether his republic would either.

Thus debate on the new treaty will begin with only 10 of the 15 republics committed to try working out something they could sign. That is hardly an auspicious beginning for what may turn out to be a last-ditch effort to keep the Soviet Union from disintegrating into little more than a name — and maybe not even that.

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