Mini Teaser: America is at war, and its citizens are understandably fixated upon events in the Persian Gulf.

by Author(s): John B. Dunlop

America is at war, and its citizens are understandably fixated upon events in the Persian Gulf.  But that should not blind us to a development of even greater magnitude currently taking place: namely, the Soviet regime's concerted attempt to roll back the liberalizations of the 1980s.  We appear to be witnessing the beginning of an ambitious rolling coup, which threatens to spread from the Baltic to the remaining twelve Soviet republics.  The Gorbachev "center" seems to have launched a kind of slow-motion civil war against the constituent republics and such pro-democracy elected bodies as the Moscow City Council.  In the economic sphere, the Soviet leadership has taken a decisive step away from market reform back toward Brezhnev-era central planning.

How could this have happened?  And what does it signify for the future of East-West relations in the 1990s?  Clearly much of the explanation lies in the elusive personality and actions of the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev.  Those who follow Soviet politics closely have been aware almost from the beginning that the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party is not the luminous "democrat" and "champion of peace" touted by the legion of Western Gorbophiles.  Nevertheless, important changes have been evident in the recent positions embraced by the Soviet leader.  Throughout 1989 and 1990, Gorbachev was steadily moving toward a restoration of authoritarian rule.

The reasons for this reversal are not too difficult to identify.  An exceedingly poor strategist--though at times a brilliant tactician--Gorbachev has repeatedly seen his policies yield results directly opposite to those he intended.  Thus glasnost led not to a reinvigoration of Marxism-Leninism and a return to 1920s-vintage idealism and fervency but to a complete discrediting of the ruling ideology, widespread desecration of monuments to Lenin, and a harsh questioning of the wisdom of the "socialist path" taken in 1917.  Demokratizatsiya, with its sponsorship of competitive elections, resulted not in a cleansing and strengthening of the Communist Party but in a widespread defection from its ranks, the abolition of Article Six of the Soviet Constitution (which mandated the party's leading role), and the emergence of anticommunist opposition parties.  The "popular fronts in support of perestroika," which were supposed to marshal public support in the Baltic and in other republics for Gorbachev's program of "within-system" reform, have in fact led to the emergence of vast nationalist and separatist movements seeking sovereignty, and in certain cases full independence, for their republics.

After the initial four years of Gorbachev's leadership, therefore, the Soviet Union had come to resemble an ungainly centaur, half proto-democracy and half entrenched totalitarianism.  It was inevitable that these polar and mutually exclusive tendencies should ultimately clash--they had, of course, been sparring vigorously throughout the Gorbachev period--and the "civil war" which the Soviet president has now launched against the republics and the democrats represents an attempt to bring this long-simmering conflict to a head.

Already in 1989, there were signs that an increasingly disillusioned and embittered Gorbachev was beginning to backpedal.  The massacre of twenty-one Georgian civilians by Soviet paratroops in April 1989 in Tbilisi was a precursor of "Bloody Sunday" in Vilnius nearly two years later.  The bloodshed in Georgia was clearly intended to intimidate growing pro-independence sentiment in that republic.  As has since become his established practice, Gorbachev denied any connection to the massacre, but an independent Soviet parliamentary commission has established that only he and Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov had the authority to order paratroops into action.  The Georgians' vigorous, at times hysterical, response to the massacre and the firm support for their position by democrats throughout the Soviet Union may have helped postpone the big crackdown in the USSR for two critical years.  In January 1990, however, Gorbachev had another limited go at control by bloodletting: tanks were sent into Azerbaijan to suppress a burgeoning Azerbaijani Popular Front.  This operation was conducted under the cover of saving Armenian and Russian lives, but in fact those ethnic groups had for the most part been moved from Azerbaijan before the tanks went in.

Similarly, the current assault on glasnost has a precedent.  On Friday, October 13, 1989--now known as "Black Friday" among Soviet democrats--Gorbachev summoned leading editors and cultural figures to the Kremlin for a two-hour tongue-lashing and dressing down.  During his harangue, Gorbachev pointed specifically to offending articles and singled out editors by name for vilification.  He unambiguously suggested that Vladislav Starkov, chief editor of Argumenty i Fakty (a weekly with the largest circulation of any newspaper in the world), resign his post.  A concerted attempt was then made to oust Starkov and Yevgeny Averin, chief editor of the reformist Knizhnoe Obozrenie, from their jobs.  Democrats rallied to the cause of the embattled editors, and their positions were saved.  At the same time, Gorbachev's close ally and party secretary for ideology, Vadim Medvedev, exerted himself mightily to emasculate a new law on the press that was being drafted by the Soviet parliament; democrats managed to obtain passage of a liberal bill only after a hard fight.

A Matter of Choice

Despite such periodic lurches to the right, it was only in the late summer of 1990 that Gorbachev appears to have finally decided to turn his back on reform.  The defining moment, as numerous Soviet democrats and Western journalists have observed, was his decision not to support the so-called "Five Hundred Days" program of economic and political reform.  This ambitious and far-reaching program--which both Gorbachev and his arch-rival Boris Yeltsin initially supported--would, if adopted, have moved the USSR rapidly along in the direction of a market economy and democracy.  Factories and state farms would have been sold off, private enterprise fostered.  Real power would have devolved to the republics, and something like the loose, informal grouping of the British Commonwealth would gradually have come into being.  Gorbachev's decision to renege on his agreement with Yeltsin and come out firmly against the Five Hundred Days program is likely to be seen by historians as one of the critical turning points of the 1990s.

Western Gorbophiles would have us believe that Gorbachev sided with the reactionaries because he had no choice.  Indeed, it is true that Soviet hardliners had been breathing fire during the summer of 1990.  The rapid evolution toward a commonwealth of sovereign republics and the economic reforms advocated by the Five Hundred Days program were seen by these elements--described variously by Lithuanian President Landsbergis as "old-style Bolsheviks," "worshippers of Great Russian imperialism," and "red Fascists"--as a mortal threat not only to their belief systems, but to their livelihood and privileges.  An adoption of the reform program would have threatened the military and the military-industrial complex with massive budget cuts.  The remaining communist true-believers were appalled at the rank heresy of a projected transition to a market economy.

Another major force resisting change was the KGB, whose chairman, Vladimir Kryuchkov, is an unreconstructed hardliner.  With the weakening and demoralizing of the Communist Party under perestroika, the KGB has steadily emerged as an independent political actor.  As Kryuchkov's recent high profile on Soviet television demonstrates, his power has been growing markedly and may already rival that of Gorbachev.  The tumultuous years 1989-90 showed conclusively that the KGB was serving not as a force for modernization but rather as a tool of reaction, working tirelessly to undermine all authentic democratic groupings within the USSR.  The KGB, a potent totalitarian holdover from the Brezhnev era, could hardly have viewed the future devolution of power to the Soviet republics or the Five Hundred Days program of economic reform with equanimity.

A factor frequently cited by Western Gorbophiles to justify his movement away from reform was the perceived weakness and disarray of the reformers.  This view ignores the aggressive "divide and rule" strategy being pursued by the KGB, presumably with Gorbachev's knowledge and approval.  The KGB was bringing numerous fictitious political parties with democratic-sounding names (for example, the "Andrei Sakharov Union of Democratic Forces") and indeed whole political blocs (the so-called "centrist bloc") into existence.  Aware of the threat of disunity, authentic reformers in the Russian Republic joined together under the "Democratic Russia" umbrella to do battle with the Communists and hardliners.

Real as the pressures on Gorbachev were, they alone did not compel him to come down on the side of the hardliners.  If there were heavy risks entailed in ignoring the vehemently held views of the old guard, there were equal dangers in siding with them against both the republics and the democrats.  For one thing, it put any kind of feasible market reform--and therefore economic recovery--in grave jeopardy.  Understandably, talented pro-market economists like Nikolai Petrakov and Stanislav Shatalin have departed Gorbachev's team, while aggressive central planners like the new prime minister, Valentin Pavlov, are now charting a course into the past.  A move back to communist orthodoxy has also put billions of dollars in Western aid and technical assistance in doubt, and it is difficult to see how the Soviet Union can extricate itself from the morass without such Western assistance.

One strongly suspects that personal motives played a key role in Gorbachev's decision.  As perceptive observers like Milovan Djilas noted early on in the Gorbachev period, the Soviet leader is a fervent, true-believing Marxist-Leninist.  Western Gorbophiles have heatedly denied this fact, but to no avail.  In his recent speeches, Gorbachev has spoken with great passion of his visceral attachment to "socialism" and of his aversion to the concept of private property.  He has bitterly attacked the Lithuanians for attempting to establish a "bourgeois republic."  When it came to the sticking point, the deep-seated Marxist in Gorbachev must have recoiled at the prospect of embracing a reform program that would set the USSR irrevocably on the path of democracy and a market economy.

Essay Types: Essay