The rules of the game in Soviet politics have been changed irrevocably by the elections for the Congress of People’s Deputies. The argument will, of course, go on over the precise significance of the results, and the Communist Party leadership is doubtless still debating even now what its precise response should be.
But what is new is that the Soviet people as a whole have become major actors on the political stage. They--rather than the general secretary, the Politburo or the Secretariat of the Central Committee--have on this occasion changed the balance of forces within the Soviet political system. Previously the average Soviet citizen was at best a passive onlooker, more commonly an apathetic passer-by, of the Soviet political process. But this latest stop along the road of democratization will make it hard, even for a leadership so minded, to turn back the Soviet electorate (a term one can now begin to use!) to where they were.
There must be many people in the party apparatus who would dearly love a return to the not-so-distant days when everything could be fixed from above. Even Mikhail S. Gorbachev cannot be entirely happy with the overwhelming support for Boris Yeltsin, who has been the subject of criticism not only from the Soviet leader, but also from Gorbachev’s prime target for criticism, Yegor K. Ligachev. Nor can Gorbachev avoid some worries over the extent to which electoral support for Communist Party leaders in the Baltic republics has become heavily dependent on the degree to which they are prepared to embrace nationalist causes.
Yet the election result also presents Gorbachev with opportunities while dealing a severe blow to the more conservative elements within the party leadership and in the Soviet political Establishment at all levels.
Now Gorbachev begins to look more like a centrist within the entire Soviet political spectrum. Some of the new members of the Congress of People’s Deputies want changes that go beyond anything Gorbachev has espoused thus far. And they can point to election results that demonstrate they are speaking not only for themselves. For a politician as resourceful as Gorbachev, this creates opportunities as well as problems. He has acquired an additional scope for maneuver. In particular, he can counter the resistance to change on the part of conservatives within the leadership with the now much more plausible warning that if the party does not lead the political reform movement, it could be left behind by it.
In this way, the elections also make it significantly harder for counter-reformationists to stage a Kremlin coup. For as long as Soviet public opinion remained inert or untapped, it was possible for party officials to speak of “the monolithic unity of the party and people,” to claim that the people are “united in their support for the party and its Leninist leadership” or to insist that “the entire Soviet people reject . . . " the views of this, that or the other independent thinker.
What, however, the party leaderships in the major Soviet cities of Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev now find is that the actual people (as distinct from the rhetorical “Soviet people”) have rejected either them or their nominees.
Among conservative Communists, some have lost face while others have lost their seats as deputies. But what must worry them most is that they may be losing control. Only politicians who are prepared to accept an accountability to the public as a whole, which has hitherto been almost entirely lacking in Soviet politics, are likely to be successful leaders in this changing political system in the future.
The elections have demonstrated conclusively that behind the monolithic facade a diversity of opinion does exist within the Soviet Union. They also have demonstrated, however, something that is entirely new--the independence of the Soviet citizenry in 1989.
When I suggested some months ago that whatever the limitations of the Soviet elections for the Congress of People’s Deputies, the very fact that they were to be competitive made them a significant landmark on the path of democratization, I encountered skepticism on the part of a veteran Soviet-watcher here in Britain. As he put it, “Even if there is more than one candidate, everyone will know whom to vote for.” In one sense, of course, he was right. All over the country, people were left in little doubt as to which candidate the local party officials intended that they should support. In Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, and many other places as well, they knew it--and yet they went out and voted for someone else.
It would be wrong to see these votes as representing in any way a united stand against the Soviet Establishment. People were protesting about many different and contradictory things. Some of the implied criticism was undoubtedly aimed at Gorbachev himself, for Gorbachev enjoys a wider popularity abroad than he does at home. In the Soviet Union, people see the shortages of foodstuffs getting worse rather than better and some of them draw the conclusion that Gorbachev is all talk and perestroika just another slogan.
That, while understandable, is also unfair. Only a few years ago it required great courage in the Soviet Union to act against the wishes of the central or local party leadership, and the idea of rejecting the one name on the ballot in an election of deputies to the Supreme Soviet was unthinkable. The fact is, that on Sunday millions of Soviet citizens crossed out the name of the person who carried with him or her (usually him) the stamp of official approval. And this did not require any courage whatsoever. That is perhaps the greatest change of all. It is just one result of the process Gorbachev, more than any other individual, has set in motion. It is quite an achievement, and something for which Gorbachev still deserves recognition and respect.