This was to be President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s day of glory as he received the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of the dramatic way in which his reforms of the Soviet Union have changed the world.
But instead of receiving the prize in Oslo and outlining his vision of a peaceful new world order in his Nobel address, Gorbachev will be presiding today over a meeting of the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee on what can be done to reverse the country’s economic disintegration.
Gorbachev, feeling that his priorities now lie at home, has sent a deputy foreign minister to collect the award and promised to deliver his Nobel address next spring in the Norwegian capital.
Yet, the inevitability of this decision may mark Gorbachev’s eclipse on the international scene--not because he will not be in Oslo today, but because he must be in Moscow to deal with the Soviet Union’s mounting political and economic problems.
Not only do the domestic crises here demand virtually all of Gorbachev’s energy, but their sheer size and number diminish his stature internationally.
For the Soviet Union, as for most countries, domestic and foreign policies have become interlocked, strength or weakness in one affecting the other, and the acute, multiple crises that Gorbachev faces at home seem certain, as a result, to have a major international impact.
“Gorbachev cannot be the actor on the international stage that he was a year or two ago--not if he is to work his way through his country’s current problems,” a senior official of the European Community commented during a visit here.
“His energies are finite . . . and he must direct them at the most immediate need. Moreover, if he is in trouble at home, he will have fewer partners abroad.”
The boldness with which Gorbachev could maneuver as the leader of a superpower has been reduced by his country’s need for foreign assistance, even emergency deliveries of food to get through the winter. As a prominent Soviet political commentator put it this weekend, “It’s difficult to be tough in arms negotiations when you’re begging for food.”
With Soviet conservatives grumbling about the “loss” of Eastern Europe and weakened defenses, questions also arise about the strength of Gorbachev’s political support--will he have backing for further arms reductions, for cooperation with Washington to resolve regional conflicts, for developing the “new international order” that he seeks for Europe and elsewhere?
And that ultimate question of whether he will survive is asked increasingly against a much different background. Gorbachev is no longer perceived here as a political necessity or as the only option. He could be gone tomorrow, or next month, and the grieving here would be short.
Hailing Gorbachev for the achievements since he came to power nearly six years ago, Alexander Lyubimov, a commentator on the iconoclastic weekend television program Vzglyad, acknowledged that he has brought tremendous changes both to the Soviet Union and the world as a whole but that he has lost vital momentum.
“What the president is missing is support--peace inside the country requires the efforts of everybody just as Gorbachev’s peace did in the world arena,” Lyubimov said. “There is no such consensus in our ranks. He is alone.”
Gorbachev’s predicament stems directly from three intertwined crises that now grip the Soviet Union and that affect its international posture:
* The Soviet economy, once the second largest in the world, is disintegrating at an ever-faster rate. Its farms produced a good harvest this year, but its wholesale and retail networks cannot deliver the food to consumers. Transport has broken down across the country, the ruble buys less and less, waiting times for some everyday necessities now run into weeks. About half of the consumer goods produced now reach buyers through the black market, according to government officials.
The Soviet economic system, founded on state ownership of all the means of production, central planning and government management, is being dismantled faster than the new system--based on free enterprise and the market forces of supply and demand--can develop as a replacement.
As a whole, the economy has shrunk by nearly 2% this year, according to official statistics, and perhaps as much as 10%. Foreign trade is down 12%, unemployment is up sharply and inflation has been measured at roughly 80% annually when free-market prices are taken into account.
* Most of the country’s 15 constituent republics, and parts of them as well, are moving rapidly toward some form of independence, putting the continued existence of the Soviet Union as a state in question.
Although national self-development is the republics’ proclaimed goal, the country’s economic decline is a powerful motive--a desire to escape the coming collapse. Yet the independence of any, even the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, could pose a major dilemma for the international community in terms of the political recognition and economic assistance they would need.
For Gorbachev, holding the country together is also vital for any resolution of the economic crisis. Because of the interdependence built up through decades of central planning, the country is discovering that it either works as an economic whole--or not at all.
* The Soviet Union’s new political system, which had been Gorbachev’s brightest domestic achievement with its glasnost , or openness, and democratization, has been unable to cope with the economic crisis and growing nationalism. Instead of mobilizing the country’s 290 million people, it has led to a quarrelsome fragmentation.
Gorbachev, asking for greater powers in an effort to lead the country through the crises, has been branded an autocrat and a dictator, although he had given up even greater authority when the Communist Party abandoned its monopoly on political power.
And conservatives and radicals alike speculate happily on his replacement, whether through a military coup d’etat that installs an apparatchik administration or through “a coalition of progressive forces.” Soviet political commentators similarly talk about the emergence of the “post-Gorbachev generation” of leaders.
A fourth crisis must be added to these three--a crisis of confidence, which has been growing for the past year and a half and which seems to sap the Soviet will to pursue the hard course of political and economic reform that the nation chose under Gorbachev.
“Of everything we have gone through, the present food shortage is the most soul-destroying--standing in line for an hour and a half and not knowing whether there will be anything at the end to feed your family,” a chemical engineer and political activist, Natalya Rubin, remarked over the weekend.
“It’s only natural to blame Gorbachev--he’s in power, isn’t he?--everybody says that if he had been paying attention to what was going on at home instead of visiting Rome and Paris and Washington and New York and New Delhi and London and Havana, things would not have gone so badly wrong.”
Until now, these domestic crises have had only a limited impact on foreign policy, according to both diplomats and Soviet political analysts, but that appears to be changing with the accelerating disintegration of the Soviet economy.
“The economy has become key, if it was not before,” a senior political commentator, normally a Gorbachev supporter, said over the weekend. “We cannot pose as a superpower while we are worried about feeding our cities this winter. We cannot venture forth as the Soviet Union when half our republics are declaring independence because they do not want to go down with us. And we cannot do deals while we are politically divided over where we are headed.”