There is a “Gorbachev” generation in the Soviet Union. As Kremlin spokesman Gennady I. Gerasimov said over the weekend, its members are still not certain whether they waited too long in the wings watching the old guard let their country drift toward ruin. One message of Moscow’s abrupt perestroika weekend is that they will not gamble on waiting too long again.
There still is a lot that the West does not know about what General Secretary, now President, Mikhail S. Gorbachev achieved in the two brief meetings that started last Friday. For example, it will have to wait and see whether the changes in personnel and government structure will work, although in that respect, the West is no worse off than Gorbachev himself.
But there is a lot that the West does know. It is safe to take Gorbachev exactly at his word about the reasons for the change. As he said in a brief speech Saturday, the “stormy discussions” that erupted after his declaration that Soviet society should be more open about its flaws have run their course, and it is time to get serious about turning around the steady decline in the Soviet standard of living. Sudden tolerance for free expression among people who lived with no freedoms at all for 70 years is no substitute for food on the table. Gorbachev heard that message from hecklers on a recent trip to central Siberia.
Retiring some venerable Moscow leaders like Andrei A. Gromyko and demoting others like Yegor K. Ligachev, the Kremlin’s former arbiter of ideology, will reduce their opportunities to slow down his drive to rebuild the Soviet economy.
But the most important changes were in party and government structure. Drawing new organization charts makes very dull theater, but the Soviets are making changes almost on the scale of Washington’s deciding to replace America’s constitutional republic with a parliamentary system.
For most of the years since the Soviet revolution, the party, through its Central Committee, has told government what to do in minute detail, based as often on the party line as on economic or industrial facts. From now on, the Central Committee, trimmed down from 22 departments to six, is under orders to stick to long-range policy. If it works as Gorbachev wants it to, the new system will leave it to regions to decide such details as how many trucks or thumb tacks they need.
Time is not on the side of the reformers. They have wasted all of the years since Abel G. Aganbegyan, now one of Gorbachev’s top economic advisers, began more than two decades ago writing critiques of the way the Soviet system was failing to deliver. And the novelty of glasnost that gives Soviet citizens more freedom to speak their minds, and the country’s intellectuals the right to attack Josef Stalin, is wearing off.
The reformers know that. It is difficult to say how much time they have before people decide that nothing is going to change and hunker down, resigned to a future as drab as the present, untouched by exhortations to help get the Soviet economy moving. But it probably must be measured in months and not years.
Gorbachev’s goal is to start over in his nation’s effort to persuade the world that Marxism is the wave of the future, the first attempt having failed dismally. The West, and Washington in particular, should encourage the new effort. For one thing, the West probably could not stop the reform movement if it tried. For another, any energy devoted to competing on the basis of high living standards reduces the energy available for competing in armed might. The emphasis on economics also plays to the strengths of the industrial democracies, yet another sound reason for taking the Gorbachev revolution seriously and treating it with some respect.