Grass-roots revolts, like those that so dramatically swept Eastern Europe last autumn, have forced out the Communist Party leaderships in more than 10 key regions of the Soviet Union in the past month.
Propelled by rising anger over shortages of food and consumer goods and by growing outrage over the abuse of power by party and government officials, the rebellion is certain to spread even faster in coming government and party elections.
But popular mistrust of the party, the government and other authorities is so great now that people readily take to the streets to depose men who, even under perestroika and democratization, have been among the powerful in the country.
Any indication of official corruption, which is viewed far more seriously in an era of severe shortages, is now sufficient to bring tens of thousands of enraged Soviet citizens into the streets for rallies that are strikingly similar to those that brought down the Communist regimes in Czechoslovakia and East Germany.
These demonstrations, which have paralyzed several major cities and filled large sports stadiums to overflowing, lead to crisis meetings by the regional party committees. There, amid sharp debate, the leaders resign or are voted out amid criticism of their "mistakes." The alternative, it is sometimes said, would be chaos in the streets and the party's inability to rule.
In many cases, the protests have been led by new groups, such as the "popular fronts" and "democratic unions" that have developed, usually as a rival to the local party organization, over the past two years and number an estimated 3,000 with perhaps 2.5 million members nationwide. Others have been organized by the emerging independent trade unions. Early successes in several cities have encouraged activists in others to mount similar campaigns.
And, to the alarm of local and regional officials, the central leadership under President Mikhail S. Gorbachev appears quite ready to accept the results of this grass-roots rebellion, perhaps because it is removing party officials who have opposed the implementation of his political and economic reforms.
Now known as the "Volgograd phenomenon," following the successful struggle that ousted the whole party leadership in that region, the local protests are quickly gathering into a movement that already is shaking the Communist Party structure at its core and replacing some of its most powerful figures with younger, more dynamic officials able to command popular support.
In Volgograd, Vladimir Kalashnikov, the regional party's first secretary, acknowledged that he had used his vast powers to get an apartment for his daughter so she would not have to endure that city's yearslong wait for housing. The party leadership had also arranged, people learned, for the construction of a special apartment building for top officials.
Enraged that such a personal abuse of power was continuing in this era of reform, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in late January in demonstrations that paralyzed the city center. The party hastily convened a top-level conference, and Kalashnikov and the rest of the regional leadership resigned. A temporary leadership was appointed pending internal party elections.
"Our events were the consequence of the revolutionary processes that are under way here," Anatoly Lemyakin, the head of the party's ideological department in Volgograd, commented later, adding that the party had lost trust because of high-level corruption.
"This is the result of decades of a political system based on 'command and administer,' which became everything to the party. But the main thing is the shortage of everything, including a shortage of true authority. That is what provoked this crisis."
In addition to Volgograd, in central Russia, the party first secretaries and in some cases whole leaderships have been forced to resign in Kaluga, south of Moscow, in Sverdlovsk and Ufa in the Ural Mountains, in Tyumen in western Sibera, in Karelia on the Finnish border and in Chernigov, Chernovtsy, Ivano-Frankovsk, Khmelnitsky and Yuzhgorod in the Ukraine.
In Donetsk, another Ukrainian district, and in Ulanyovsk on the Volga River, the party leaders are under virtual siege by continuing demonstrations demanding their resignations. The regional party leadership in Khabarovsk in the Soviet Far East is under similar pressure as a result of a scandal over cars imported from Japan.
The party leaders in Azerbaijan and Baku, its capital, were replaced last month after more than 200 people were killed in ethnic violence. The resignation of the top party and government leaders has also been demanded by protesters in Tadzhikistan in Soviet Central Asia after rioting there.
And in the Siberian coal mining region of Kemerovo, the controversial party leader, Alexander G. Melnikov, is trying to retire following the dismissal of one of his deputies on corruption charges, but a party conference decided on Friday that he must first report on his work as the regional first secretary before he quits.
These regional officials have long enjoyed such unchallenged powers locally and often such autonomy from the center that they have been the barons of Soviet politics. A number preside over regions that are as large as many American states and some countries in Western Europe. And within the party, they historically have constituted as much as a third of the policy-making Central Committee.
But their day is ending, the radical populist Boris N. Yeltsin, himself a former regional leader, warned as he campaigned for election to the Russian Republic Parliament in Sverdlovsk this month. They will not be able to withstand the mounting anger over the worsening shortages and the continued abuse of power, Yeltsin said.
"We are going to follow the same pattern of revolution as the countries of Eastern Europe," Yeltsin said after a week in Sverdlovsk, where the regional party leader, Leonid Bobykin, was ousted two weeks ago. "You can see this revolution building already--it is happening today. . . .
"The most important thing is whether we will be able to control (it) within some civilized limits, as in Czechoslovakia and the German Democratic Republic, or whether, because of our monstrous KGB, we will follow the Romanian pattern and have a civil war."
Assessing this protest "virus," the Communist Party newspaper Pravda expressed concern about "street democracy" growing into "the diktat of the crowd."
"Plenary meetings of party committees are more democratic and constructive today," a Pravda correspondent wrote from Volgograd, where demonstrations continue. "Communists from primary organizations and leaders of informal groups are invited to such plenums. Everyone has the right to vote. . . .
"What do we want: freedom and democracy or bread and entertainment? Those at rallies want either. But the speakers are the same. They 'heat' the atmosphere. Everyone then demands 'Down with . . . !' and is supported by the crowd."
This trend is dangerous, Pravda argues, because it "can grow into extremism. People are looking for enemies, emotions are high, the mob shouts 'Down with . . . !' and does not care what is next."
But confidence in the Communist Party and virtually all Soviet authorities has declined sharply in the past year and a half, according to Nikolai Popov, a leading specialist on public opinion, as people conclude that those in power work for only their own interests and not to resolve the country's deepening economic and social problems.
"We have moved from a crisis of confidence, which had grown acute, to a crisis of mistrust," Popov said, commenting on new opinion polls that suggest an end of popular patience with the slow process of reform. "The situation is such now that people actively and firmly pronounce their mistrust of the authorities."
With local and regional elections scheduled for March 4 across the Russian Republic as well as in the Ukraine and Byelorussia, the pace of change is certain to quicken as voters are given the chance to express their discontent and to oust government officials.
Party elections will then be held under new rules that will require secret ballots and nomination from below rather than above so that there are multiple candidates. This process of change will be further amplified when delegates to this summer's crucial party congress are elected from below rather than nominated from above.
"By any measure, this is a revolution, and it is gathering speed," a senior Soviet editor commented last week. "In the past, these regional leaders would be replaced--but by the center. The people have learned how to rebel, and they are using their inherent power to make very, very significant political changes themselves.
"We may complain that these 'street politics' are not really democratic, but then these are not democratic structures. . . . There may be better ways to ensure political accountability, but until now we have had almost no accountability to the people whatsoever."
The danger the party faces from this rebellion became clear in early January, even before the Volgograd demonstrations, when angry residents of the northern Ukrainian city of Chernigov forced the resignation of Leonid Palazhchenko, the regional first secretary, and other officials over the issue of party privileges.
A high-ranking official's car involved in a traffic accident was found to be filled with scarce foods. The driver and his boss were both drunk. Angered, bystanders dragged them and their car to the regional party headquarters where, now numbering thousands of people, they demanded the resignation of the leadership.
Bigger protests followed, the demands grew and a strike committee began to organize a general work stoppage. After a week, the party leadership capitulated, and Palazhchenko and others quit.
In Tyumen, an oil- and gas-rich region in western Siberia, a senior party official, the chief of the ideology department, launched protests publicly with a letter to the local newspaper criticizing Gennady P. Bogomyakov, the first secretary there for the past 15 years, for his "dictatorship of loutishness."
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