A new coalition has been formed in Moscow in which a very disgruntled Soviet military is playing an ever more important role in association with its close allies in the industrial ministries, in the Communist Party apparatus (especially that of the Russian republic), in the KGB and among Russian nationalists.
Last year Mikhail S. Gorbachev came under ever-increasing pressure from these quarters and he has made concessions to them. He appears to have become part of a consensus that a period of consolidation of central power is essential before the Soviet Union can proceed further in the direction of a market economy and, in due course, greater democracy.
This is, however, a dangerous path to take. Gorbachev has long postponed a showdown in the Baltic republics, and those who have pressed him into action now have chosen their time on the assumption that the attention of the rest of the world will be focused on developments in the Persian Gulf. Gorbachev has been ready to negotiate a high degree of autonomy for Lithuania within the framework of a new federation or even confederation. The Lithuanian leadership’s refusal to take a somewhat more gradual road to independence has played its part in undermining Gorbachev’s position and that of his seriously reformist supporters in Moscow.
Be that as it may, the killing of peaceful demonstrators in Vilnius was not only immoral but also, ultimately, politically self-defeating. Similar action in Tbilisi in April, 1989, created almost overnight a majority for outright independence in Soviet Georgia. The deaths in Lithuania last weekend and in Latvia on Wednesday can only further poison the relations between Moscow and the Baltic states.
Gorbachev was clearly a party to the attempt to re-establish Soviet control in Lithuania and put an end to its unilaterally declared independence. Some of his critics assume that he, therefore, implicitly or explicitly approved the shooting of unarmed demonstrators on the streets of Vilnius. That is surely to misread not only Gorbachev’s disposition but his political acumen. I agree rather with the view expressed to me here last Sunday by a liberal Russian scholar--at that very time on his way to the center of the city to take part in a demonstration against the actions of the Soviet army in Lithuania--that the killings were “a provocation against Gorbachev.”
One of the factors that has made it difficult for Gorbachev’s opponents within the Soviet structures of power to replace him as Soviet leader is his very high standing in the outside world. If Gorbachev is associated in Western minds with the spilling of innocent blood, together with a retreat from his policy of glasnost , his prestige in the West will rapidly diminish. Having first destroyed his credibility, his Soviet opponents can then move to destroy him politically.
Gorbachev could find himself, unwittingly, in the same position as Alexander Dubcek in Czechoslovakia between August, 1968, and April, 1969. Following the Soviet invasion, Dubcek accepted a curtailment of reform and the removal from political office of some of the strongest supporters of far-reaching change, in the belief that he could save the essence of the “Prague Spring” ideals. In fact, this period of more than half a year of piecemeal concessions to Soviet orthodoxy led to public disillusionment within Czechoslovakia.
In contrast with the colossal passive resistance of the Czechs to Soviet troops in August, 1968, virtually no one lifted a finger to protect Dubcek when he was replaced by the cynical conservative communist Gustav Husak seven months later.
The paradox of Gorbachev’s position is that, from different perspectives, he can be viewed either as Leonid I. Brezhnev or as Dubcek. In Lithuanian eyes, he is playing a Brezhnev role in authorizing the crushing of their independence, but he has many false friends in Moscow’s corridors of power who see him as a Dubcek--as a revisionist who betrayed communism and who must, at an appropriate moment, be cast like Dubcek into the political wilderness.
Dubcek, of course, returned in late 1989 to play a relatively prominent, albeit subordinate, role in Czechoslovak political life as part of a more fully democratic system than Czechoslovakia had attained in 1968. Similarly, even if we are seeing the beginning of the end of the Gorbachev era in the Soviet Union (and we may be, although Gorbachev’s political resourcefulness should never be underestimated), that does not mean there will be no return to reform in the Soviet Union. There is bound to be--if only because no efficient alternative to a market economy has yet been found.
But 10 or 20 years of highly repressive rule in a Soviet Union that is still a military superpower would be a high price to pay for the people of that country and possibly for the rest of the world. Thus, we in the West should not be in too great a hurry to hasten Gorbachev’s departure from office, since the forces pushing him in a more conservative direction are not ready to accept a more liberal successor.
A point may come, however, when Gorbachev will have to decide that it is better to be right than be president, but it would be best of all if he would put his political skills and what remains of his prestige once again on the side of radical reform and peaceful reconciliation.