PERSPECTIVE ON THE SOVIET UNION : Gorbachev Must Control the KGB : A main threat to Soviet democracy is not loss of Gorbachev, but Gorbachev himself, and his use of the KGB.

<i> Mark Kramer is a research fellow at Brown University's Center for Foreign Policy Development and a fellow of Harvard University's Russian Research Center. </i>

Just when the Cold War had been officially pronounced over, the abrupt resignation of Eduard A. Shevardnadze as Soviet foreign minister, coupled with his warnings of an impending “dictatorship” in Moscow, has cast doubt on the whole future of the Soviet Union and of East-West relations. Endless speculation has ensued in the West about Shevardnadze’s speech. Most of the speculation so far, however, has focused on the wrong issues.

The chief danger of dictatorship in the Soviet Union comes not from the possible ouster of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev or from a military coup, but from Gorbachev himself, and his reliance on the KGB. Up to now Gorbachev has been a key proponent of democratic reform, but his overriding concern is to consolidate his own power and to preserve the Soviet state in its current borders, if necessary by force. For both these goals, Gorbachev has been turning more and more to the KGB.

In recent weeks the KGB has been given broad authority over food distribution and foreign economic policy, and has taken on sweeping powers to combat “economic sabotage.” A former top KGB official with impeccable hard-line credentials, Boris Pugo, was recently appointed head of the Internal Affairs Ministry. The current KGB chairman, Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, has been appearing of late on Soviet television, issuing stern warnings about “destructive forces” and “anti-communist radicals” who are trying to “foment chaos” and “subvert the Soviet Union through overt and covert means” with “active support from Western intelligence services.”

Kryuchkov also has hinted that “blood will have to be spilled” if the KGB is to succeed in “restoring order in the country.” The tone of Kryuchkov’s statements, and the KGB’s notorious role in Soviet history, suggest that Gorbachev may be playing a dangerous game.


According to Oleg Kalugin, a former general in the KGB who was forced to retire this year, the agency has been virtually untouched by all the changes under Gorbachev. The lack of reform in the KGB is of immense political importance because, as Jeremy Azrael of the RAND Corp. has shown, the KGB has often played a key role during times of political uncertainty in Moscow. The leeway Gorbachev has recently given to the KGB to serve as an organ of repression, and the possibility that this role could continue to grow, were undoubtedly the main stimulus for Shevardnadze’s concern about a looming “dictatorship.”

Indeed, for some time, Shevardnadze has had good reason to be wary of the KGB, as was evident by the strong defense he offered in his speech on Soviet policy toward the Persian Gulf. Soviet cooperation with the United States during the crisis, which Shevardnadze firmly supported, was unwelcome to key officials in the KGB, who enjoyed close ties with Iraq’s intelligence services. These officials have tried their best to steer Soviet policy back to a pro-Iraqi orientation.

Among other things, the KGB encouraged and instigated “anti-Shevardnadze” demonstrations outside the Soviet Foreign Ministry, where protesters expressed “outrage” at the “policy executed by Shevardnadze” and demanded his immediate resignation. KGB officials have also been linked to spurious reports appearing in the foreign press about alleged Soviet plans to send troops to Saudi Arabia. Both the demonstrations and the false “disclosures” were intended to discredit Soviet policy generally and Shevardnadze in particular.

In addition, the KGB has directly challenged Shevardnadze’s claim that he was not warned of Iraq’s original attack on Kuwait. Last week, a few days before Shevardnadze’s dramatic speech, the KGB’s foreign-intelligence director, Leonid Shebarshin, declared that “the invasion of Kuwait was not a surprise for us,” and that top Soviet officials had been informed well in advance. Shebarshin’s unusual statement, whether true or not, was almost certainly designed to embarrass Shevardnadze, who had assured U.S. officials in early August that Iraq was not about to attack.


Further confirmation of Shevardnadze’s strained relationship with the KGB came when the foreign minister, toward the end of his resignation speech to the Congress of People’s Deputies, condemned the Pamyat society, an extreme, quasi-fascist organization. So far, Pamyat has failed to win much popular support even among Russian nationalists, but the group compensates for this shortcoming by maintaining close links with certain high-level officials.

Exactly who in the Soviet political hierarchy is a sponsor of Pamyat was unclear until recently, but suspicions had long existed that the group was supported by the KGB. Now it turns out that those suspicions were well-founded. In an interview this past August, Kryuchkov described Pamyat as a “very helpful and patriotic” group of individuals “whose activity is highly welcome.” This upbeat assessment could not have been more at odds with Shevardnadze’s scathing appraisal.

Shevardnadze’s projected departure, and the declining prominence of another reform-minded adviser, Alexander N. Yakovlev, will remove the main checks on Gorbachev’s willingness to depend on the KGB. The decision, thereafter, will be his alone. If he wants to pursue genuine liberalization and democracy at home, he will have to extend perestroika into the KGB, even at the risk of his own position. But Gorbachev up to now has been so concerned about preserving his power and retaining the non-Slavic republics that he has been gradually moving, through his increased reliance on the KGB, toward the very “dictatorship” that Shevardnadze feared.

This is not to say that Gorbachev will automatically become a repressive dictator or that he will refrain indefinitely from trying to reform the KGB. Shevardnadze ended his speech on an optimistic note, claiming that democracy and freedom would ultimately prevail. But if Shevardnadze is to be proved right and a dictatorship is to be avoided, Gorbachev will have to act decisively to curb the powers of the KGB.


Ideally, Shevardnadze’s resignation would be enough to prod Gorbachev in that direction; but for now, unfortunately, Gorbachev’s desire to consolidate power and to preserve the union intact still appears stronger than his commitment to democracy and freedom.