Yeltsin, 4 Others to Head Soviet Opposition Bloc
Soviet lawmakers intent on accelerating the pace of reform elected Kremlin maverick Boris N. Yeltsin, human rights campaigner Andrei D. Sakharov and three other prominent activists Sunday to collectively head the first formal opposition group within this country’s national political system in nearly 70 years.
Voting at the conclusion of their two-day founding conference, members of the self-styled Inter-Regional Deputies’ Group also chose a 25-member coordinating committee and agreed in principle on a far-reaching platform that would give workers the right to buy their factories, end the state’s monopoly on television broadcasting and provide direct election of the country’s president by popular ballot.
A Coming of Age
“What we have seen here is a demonstration of how the democratic consciousness of our people has come of age,” former Moscow Communist Party chief Yeltsin told a news conference Sunday night.
Formation of the rebel parliamentary group is “a very serious change in the political-social life of our country,” added Yeltsin, who was ousted from both the Moscow job and the ruling Politburo almost two years ago after criticizing what he called the slow pace of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s perestroika reform program.
The rebel lawmakers stressed repeatedly that they intend to work within the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet, the standing Parliament, as a loyal but critical counterbalance to the ruling Communist Party.
The group’s members insisted that they are not forming an opposition political group in the Western sense, but a draft copy of their program circulated at the weekend convention calls for repeal of Article 6 of the Soviet constitution, which establishes the “leading role” of the Communist Party in all phases of national life.
According to the draft, which won preliminary approval Sunday, the group sees the Congress of People’s Deputies as the ultimate source of state power.
By simply convening their meeting, members of the new group broke a tradition of nearly seven decades of organizational unity behind the policies of the top party leadership. Political “factionalism,” as virtually any group criticism of official policy is termed, has not been tolerated within the Soviet Communist Party since its 10th Congress in March, 1921, and the last rival party here, the Socialist Revolutionaries, was suppressed in 1922.
More than 300 of the Congress of People’s Deputies’ 2,250 members were on hand for the weekend conference, and supporters said as many as 250 others who back their efforts were unable to attend.
Even with more than 500 supporters in the Congress, the faction would fall well short of a majority needed to push through its ideas. However, the group could prove to be a magnet to attract swing deputies toward more aggressive change.
In addition to Yeltsin and Sakharov, the new group selected as co-chairmen reformist historian Yuri N. Afanasyev, prominent economist Gavriil Popov and Estonian academician Viktor Palm.
While the five theoretically share collective responsibility as co-chairmen, radical populist Yeltsin attracted the most votes among the 13 candidates for the senior leadership, and he has been the group’s primary spokesman. Afanasyev, who is director of the Moscow Historical Archive Institute and a leading force behind efforts to fill in the so-called “blank spots” of the Soviet Union’s Stalinist past, finished second in Sunday’s balloting.
All the co-chairmen except Sakharov appeared later at a news conference, during which they indicated that their top priority will be to reform the election law and bring forward elections for local and regional officials now scheduled for early next year.
They called for an extraordinary session of the Congress of People’s Deputies in September to consider constitutional amendments related to elections. The next regular session of the Congress is not due until the end of the year.
The rebel deputies hold that Gorbachev’s reforms have so far been half-hearted and have therefore failed to lead the nation out of what they see as a deepening political and economic crisis. Widespread strikes by the country’s coal miners in mid-July proved the growing level of social tension, they argued.
Other reforms advocated in the Inter-Regional Deputies’ Group’s draft platform would mandate:
-- Public referendums on any proposed laws affecting the rights and freedoms of citizens and on any proposed constitutional amendment.
-- An annual government report on its activities followed by a parliamentary vote of confidence.
-- A two-term maximum for the chairman of people’s councils at all levels of government, including the Supreme Soviet now headed by Gorbachev.
-- Preliminary work to end the system of internal Soviet passports and allow free entry and exit to the country’s citizens.
-- And legalization of independent trade unions.