Gorbachev Met by Complaints in Siberian City
Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, in a scene astonishing in a country where respect for national leaders is enforced, was heckled Monday in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk by angry residents complaining that their shops are empty, their clothing is shabby and their housing is shoddy.
“Go into our shops, Mikhail Sergeyevich, you will see that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, there!” one woman shouted at him.
Gorbachev, who is making one of his periodic tours of the provinces, stopped on his way from the airport into Krasnoyarsk, an industrial center in eastern Siberia, and encountered in the curb-side crowd the problems that not only are building rapidly but also are verging on serious social discontent.
“Lines, our life is nothing but lines,” a man called out. “We have lines everywhere, for meat, for sausage, for everything.”
Other complaints--about the quality of clothing, about the shortage of new housing, about privileges for the party elite--came fast and furious.
“Nobody is doing anything about housing here,” another in the crowd said, and others added: “We have no hot water” and “Our public transport is a disaster.”
Gorbachev, calm and patient and with his wife, Raisa, at his side, listened to the crowd and tried to respond, saying that steps are being taken to improve living conditions and that more are planned.
Shown on Soviet TV
The scene was included in the 24 minutes of reportage about Gorbachev’s trip that was shown on Soviet television Monday evening.
The frank exchange reflected both the growing popular discontent, now heard openly in many shops as well as on street corners and on buses and subways, and Gorbachev’s resolve to deal with the underlying problems.
“We are on the correct path,” Gorbachev said, defending his political, economic and social reforms, known collectively as perestroika . “We will not stop, and we will not go astray.”
Although the questions were sharp and often angry, they seemed to be directed not so much at Gorbachev himself, who was addressed respectfully, as at the system he heads.
“We all have to reconstruct ourselves, from the top downward,” he told the crowd. “At all levels, the leadership is still being formed.”
Solving the people’s problems has remained a priority for the whole country, Gorbachev said, adding that this is particularly true in Siberia, where the emphasis is on fast-paced economic development. Solving social problems “has always been pushed into the background,” he said.
While billions of rubles have been invested over the past 12 years in the Krasnoyarsk region, which accounts for a tenth of the country’s area, very little has been spent on people compared to the vast amounts that have gone into industry there.
“If you take a look, it turns out that the proportion of money directed to housing, to schools, to facilities for children, is less than in other regions,” Gorbachev said. “And this in Siberia, where a new region is being opened up. It is not right, and we have to put it right.”
He said that in many areas of the country, “social development” is lagging behind the development of natural resources and the industries based on them.
“This is intolerable,” he went on. “We need people. Without people, and facilities for them, we will get nowhere.”
The Krasnoyarsk trip may signal Gorbachev’s position in a raging political debate on the country’s economic strategy--where to put the emphasis, what to reform first, whether to reorient the whole economy to make satisfaction of consumer needs the top priority, how to introduce market forces, how to put prices on a rational basis.
The central government, particularly the State Planning Commission and various ministries, is to blame even more than local officials for the longstanding policy of putting consumer needs behind those of industry, Gorbachev said, indicating that his sympathies lie with those advocating radical change.
“They (in the central government) wanted to have the (production) capacities as soon as possible, to make their report and say that they had made their contribution,” Gorbachev said. “But what are we to do with all this capacity if there are no people here?”
Gorbachev, who has been on vacation since Aug. 1, has stayed out of the current debate, which has publicly split the Politburo, and his comments during the Krasnoyarsk visit will be an important political barometer for the country.
Soviet news media described his visit to Krasnoyarsk, which has a population of nearly 1 million, as one of his periodic inspection trips to the provinces. Krasnoyarsk, on the banks of the Yenisei River, has grown into a major industrial center serving eastern Siberia.
Gorbachev often announces new programs and projects on such trips. Tass, the official Soviet news agency, suggested that he might include a new foreign policy initiative in a speech planned for today.
Krasnoyarsk is the site of a controversial, half-built Soviet radar station that the United States contends violates the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty between the two countries. Washington declared earlier this month that until the station is dismantled, no new agreement on arms reduction is possible.