The real sub-rosa issue in American debates about the Soviet Union over the last few years has been whether the Soviet system is so fragile that it will not survive.
The old John Foster Dulles rhetoric about “liberation” gained very serious support among top American policy-makers for the first time in the 1980s. The Solidarity revolt in Poland over an increase in meat prices (a necessary step for economic reform) has led to hopes that Gorbachev’s reform program will have similar political consequences.
Now that Boris Yeltsin has put together a Solidarity-like coalition by promising democracy to the intellectuals and economic populism to the workers, those who have hoped to crack the Soviet empire may become even more optimistic. However, as the Bush Administration conducts its review of its policy toward the Soviet Union, it is time for sober realism, not wishful thinking.
Without any question, Yeltsin’s overwhelming electoral victory is going to force Americans to think through their analysis of the Soviet Union in a consistent way. The same people who think that fear of worker riots may prevent an increase in meat prices also see Gorbachev as a heroic, lonely figure fighting overwhelming conservative opposition.
In fact, the most significant opposition to Gorbachev will always come from the liberal, not the conservative side. If the workers demonstrate, it will not be for a return to Brezhnevism, but for freely elected trade unions to protect their economic position and job security.
In mid-March the Soviet Union published the report of the Central Committee plenum, in which Yeltsin was dismissed as a Central Committee member. The report makes clear that Yeltsin deliberately provoked a fight with Gorbachev in order to position himself clearly to the left of the Soviet leader on the issue of democratization. Yeltsin seems to be following a strategy like that of former Philippine Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, who broke with President Corazon Aquino very early in her administration in order to be a credible alternative in case she failed. At the plenum, Gorbachev and others accused Yeltsin of personal ambition. They seem to have been right. If Gorbachev fails, Yeltsin hopes to be general secretary or perhaps the first elected president.
The question is: How do things look for him now? On the one level, very good. He was removed from the party leadership of Moscow in disgrace, but now 89% of Moscow voters have selected him in a free election. He has a vindication and legitimization that must be heady indeed.
On another level, however, Yeltsin will not find it easy to build on his victory. There will not be another national election for five years. If he assumes an active role in the new Congress of People’s Deputies, he will find it difficult to espouse both radical economic reform and the price stability that the workers want. He easily could lose the special position he has now. His best strategy is probably to try to put himself in charge of a free trade-union movement as Lech Walesa did in Poland, but that is seldom the path to national leadership in any country.
Similarly, we should not exaggerate Gorbachev’s difficulties. Those Americans who have hoped to see the Soviet regime crumble have depicted Gorbachev as a man doing a perilous high-wire act. They will now want to see him teetering.
In fact, Yeltsin’s election has compensations for Gorbachev. Gorbachev has used Yegor Ligachev as a bogeyman to restrain the liberals, and now he can use Yeltsin in any battles with conservatives in the Central Committee and the military. Gorbachev can argue that change must be introduced to maintain stability in a population voting for the most radical candidate, and the implicit threat of a Gorbachev-Yeltsin appeal for mass action should be truly frightening. Any politician likes to be in the center, and Gorbachev has now achieved that.
The question is whether the pressure for more democracy will continue to build. Well over half the Soviet population have a high school diploma or better, and dictatorships generally have real difficulties maintaining control as education levels rise that high.
If the Soviet Union were a country composed of one nationality group, like Poland, the dictatorship would be very difficult to preserve. The multinational nature of the Soviet Union is, however, a real plus for Gorbachev. The non-Russian nationality groups are individually too small to pose a seious threat (there are only 1.5 million Estonians, for example), and the Russian enthusiasm for democracy is tempered by the knowledge that it would mean the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev has a juggling act to do, but not on a high-wire. He can occasionally slip up without destroying himself. He and the Soviet Union are going to be around for some time. If he is willing to help us reduce our military budgets and our deficits, we should be taking advantage of the opportunity rather than chasing illusions about seeing the Soviet Union crumble.