President Mikhail S. Gorbachev amassed more legal power this week than any previous Soviet leader, but such is the depth of his country’s crisis that not even he can be confident that this will be enough to pull it from its growing political and economic chaos.
The problem is less one of power than of plain politics: Gorbachev has yet to lay down a precise plan to reform the economy along market lines, to work out a compact that will preserve the Soviet Union as a federal state and to build a system of government that supports these changes.
He has ideas on all, to be sure, but the “paralysis of power” that has gripped the country for more than a year and worsened its multiple crises lies, first of all, in his own irresoluteness and consequent inability to win support for the tough decisions required for the country’s transformation.
The gravity of these crises is unmistakable, and Soviet politicians seriously discuss the possibility of civil war if solutions are not found quickly.
The Soviet Union is beset, above all, by the accelerating collapse of its economy: The system of state ownership, central planning and government management no longer functions as an organic whole, and growing barter trade and an annual inflation rate of perhaps 80% are the only real signs of the market economy that Gorbachev has promoted to replace it.
Rising nationalism, spurred by the country’s economic problems, now threatens the breakup of the Soviet Union as a federal state. The secession of the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania appears inevitable, and perhaps that of Georgia and Moldova as well. Gorbachev wants a union treaty to establish a new relationship between the central government and the republics, but passions are so high that little progress has been made.
The Soviet Union’s new democratic institutions, still young and uncertain, have so far proven incapable of resolving either the economic or the ethnic crisis, and that failure has compounded both, led to extensive social unrest and created a crisis of confidence in perestroika, Gorbachev’s reform program. Trust in Gorbachev himself, as measured by Soviet public opinion polls, declines almost weekly, and Soviet commentators speculate on the “post-Gorbachev era.”
That Gorbachev would win approval for constitutional changes, however, was never in doubt, although they required a two-thirds majority in the Congress of People’s Deputies, the national Parliament. What remains uncertain as the Congress draws to a close is whether he won enough support for the political consensus he needs.
“Mikhail Gorbachev is trying to rescue his leadership from collapse,” a member of the president’s inner circle commented. “The stakes are very, very high. We are talking about the fate of Gorbachev, the fate of perestroika, the fate of the nation. He must act, and boldly, but in a law-based democracy, to act he needs power.”
Yet, even as they voted to amend the Soviet constitution and broaden the president’s authority, members of the Congress of People’s Deputies asked this week how Gorbachev would use these new powers, whether they were giving him the authority he needed to resolve these fundamental problems--or whether they were creating a dictatorship.
“Power is a means, not an end,” Pavel G. Bunich, a pro-market economist and deputy, commented. “Gorbachev will get his new powers, but will we get any progress? Doubtful, very doubtful.
“In the economy, for example, the problem is not getting enough power to push a program through, but working out that program and getting support for it from the people. With sufficient support, more power would be unnecessary, for the market would pull us forward with even greater effectiveness.”
Gorbachev argued, however, that “life itself” had shown the need for greater presidential authority. Not even government officials were obeying his orders, nor were they bound to do so under the constitution. The advent of democracy, moreover, had convinced every region that it was sovereign. Every factory manager, every farmer, the members of every local council felt that they knew better than Moscow what needed to be done.
“When laying emphasis on dismantling the command system and breaking the chains that fettered us, we did not make all the essential provisions for making decisions and executing them,” Gorbachev told journalists last week at the Congress. “Democracy is already accompanied by such outbursts and sheer exhaustion that we are on the brink of chaos.”
Gorbachev, addressing the Congress, promised action and an end to vacillation. “We shall act now, saving every day and drastically changing the system and the nature of our way of doing things,” he said. “This means we should have new structures and new people to carry this weight and grapple in earnest with the problems the nation faces.”
But this declaration brought a quick retort from his critics. “We always say that the president lacks powers,” commented Vladimir K. Chernyak, a leading economist from the Ukraine. “But maybe he lacks something else--firm positions, a consistent line and effective policies.”
Four times this year, Gorbachev has sought additional powers, either from the Congress of People’s Deputies or from the Supreme Soviet, the country’s legislature, and each time promised firm action to deal with the deepening political and economic crises.
Yet the “paralysis of power,” now a political byword here, has only become more evident. Promised decrees on economic reform, for example, were delayed for months--or never issued. Reorganization of the government, streamlining it into a dozen key ministries, has been postponed repeatedly. Conflicts between presidential decrees, ministerial orders, government regulations and legislation--all new--remain unresolved.
“This is a man who does not know what to do,” a former Gorbachev adviser commented, asking not to be named. “In some cases, it is because he does not understand the issues or appreciate their urgency. In some cases, he is pulled every which way by his advisers, the ministers, the generals and dozens of others. And often, quite often, he simply cannot decide for fear of making a grievous error. He never forgets how close we are to real chaos.”
Even within the Communist Party leadership, Gorbachev has come under attack for his failure to act. “Of all the shortages we have today, the main shortage is that of specific action--at all levels,” Ivan K. Polozkov, the conservative first secretary of the Russian Communist Party, declared earlier this month. “Even when we are convinced of the correctness of what has to be done, when the aims and the tasks have been determined, the work stands still and nothing is done.”
But Gorbachev’s approach to the crisis--enhancing his authority to rule by decree, to declare states of emergency and to take over administration of any republic or region--is worrisome to many, even to some of his closest colleagues.
Eduard A. Shevardnadze, the foreign minister, resigned in an impassioned warning to Gorbachev and the nation to beware of “reactionary forces” that were already pressing the leadership hard and perhaps positioning themselves to establish a dictatorship, using the president’s additional powers.
The shift rightward is clear. Liberals are being forced from the government and party leadership. Gorbachev’s policy declarations lay greater stress on the “socialist choice” and reflect little of the bold reforms approved at the Communist Party congress six months ago. The military, security forces and police have regained much of their past prominence. Declared conservatives among deputies at the Congress outnumbered liberals by a margin of more than 2 to 1.
“Greater presidential powers, largely without the checks and balances that are placed on an American president or the parliamentary restraints that a British prime minister has, is very risky when the right is in resurgence,” commented Nikolai I. Travkin, a leader of the Democratic Party of Russia. “The combination has great potential for explosion. Does Gorbachev realize what he is creating?”
The first calls for a “strong hand” to run the government came, however, not from the far right, but from radical reformers who, in mid-1989, urged Gorbachev to use extraordinary powers to push through a bolder program for the country’s political and economic transformation over the resistance of old-line bureaucrats.
Even now, Sergei B. Stankevich, the first deputy mayor in Moscow’s radical-led municipal government, supports what he calls “authoritarian rule” to halt the spreading chaos and speed the resolution of the present crises.
“We need a president ready and able to act,” Stankevich said. “And Gorbachev will never be ready until he (has the power and) is able. The paralysis of power is nationwide, and it has halted any meaningful reform. The place to begin a recovery action is in the president’s office.”
Roy A. Medvedev, a leading Marxist historian, onetime dissident and now both a deputy and a member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, also argued that fears of a dictatorship are misplaced.
“These changes are important, for they give the presidency a vertical structure that it lacked,” Medvedev said. “The president could issue an ukaz (decree) in the Kremlin and not be certain that it would even be published, let alone obeyed. In the past, the party enforced decisions through its discipline, but in some places the party is now not even in the government.
“By law, it is true, Gorbachev now has more power than any Soviet leader ever had, but it is less power than he inherited when he became the party’s general secretary. When the party gave up its monopoly on power--at Gorbachev’s insistence, remember--he gave up enormous power. What he is doing is getting back what he needs to operate and fulfill the people’s expectations. This man is a democrat, not a dictator.”