NEWS ANALYSIS : Soviet Political Shift a Study in Paradoxes


Power in the Soviet Union shifted decisively away from the central government Thursday, effectively ending not only seven decades of Soviet rule but centuries of Kremlin domination.

The Congress of People’s Deputies, acknowledging the failure of a political system that could not save the country from collapse, voted to abolish the system.

Amending the Soviet constitution after four days of debate, the deputies left only a skeletal government in place. Real power is now in the hands of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and the leaders of the country’s republics.

The extraordinary action “has done a lot to save the country from anarchy, ethnic strife and a civil war,” Moscow Mayor Gavriil K. Popov said later.


The move, nevertheless, was paradoxical.

In the name of democracy, the country’s Parliament suspended itself for the remaining 2 1/2 years of its term. In the name of political and economic decentralization, more power was concentrated in the hands of fewer people. In the name of establishing a new political order, the old constitution was gutted without a new one even drafted.

And with an adroitness that he has preserved, despite last month’s abortive coup d’etat , Gorbachev commanded yet another historic moment for his nation, brooking no further opposition.

“Those who wrote Mikhail Gorbachev’s obituary at the time of the coup were wrong,” Georgy Arbatov, director of the U.S.A. Institute, a leading think tank, and a deputy at the Congress, commented Thursday. “What they should have written was the obituary of the Soviet political system, of Kremlin rule, of bureaucratic socialism. . . .


“The coup and its failure were the fatal blow to that system, and the Congress was its death agony,” he said. “There are negative aspects, certainly, but this decision will be seen in history as the final break with that old system.”

But the real criterion will be whether this double shift of power--from the Kremlin to the republics and away from the remnants of the Soviet system--finally enables the leadership to pull the country from its profound political and economic crisis.

“I don’t think it will pass the grocery-store test,” commented Lydia Lipetsky, a political economist who studies African countries. “People will decide according to food supplies and prices whether all this succeeded or failed; yet, this step does not address those problems. . . .

“Political power, of itself, does not fatten pigs or bake bread or grow cabbages, nor does it bring down prices for potatoes in a free market,” Lipetsky continued. “Power is good if you have a good plan. Power is bad if the plan is bad. And power is irrelevant if you have no plan. We have repeatedly given the president more powers when he has had no plan.”


Even Gorbachev’s advisers remain worried despite his parliamentary triumph, which they saw as crucially important to his political comeback after the abortive coup last month.

“The dangerous time will be in late winter or early spring when the food runs out,” one presidential aide said after the debate Thursday. “The economy has collapsed, simply collapsed, and political power itself won’t reorganize or re-energize it.”

The action, as worked out by Gorbachev and leaders of 10 of the 15 republics and eventually pushed through the Parliament, rested largely on two key assessments:

* Insufficient political power was seen as the major obstacle to progress, as conservatives continued to block fundamental reforms and last month attempted to seize power in a coup. Therefore, the reformers needed much more legal authority. According to this logic, Gorbachev and the others who now rule with enhanced power and only nominal responsibility to the electorate should be able to pull the country out of its crisis because opponents to their reforms have been vanquished.


* The country’s problems are perceived as better dealt with at lower levels of government. Where resolution of the whole crisis has been impossible, improvements here and there should prove easier and prevent total collapse.

Some problems, such as harvesting this year’s crops and improving food distribution, can be solved locally. But many others--from oil and gas production to redressing the balance in imports and exports--are far more complex. They depend on the simultaneous resolution of a number of difficulties in different regions of the country.

“Nothing was said about how this will pull us out of the economic crisis,” Yuri Burikh, a chemical engineer and a deputy from the Ukrainian industrial city of Donetsk, commented after the Congress ended its session. “Again, we are assuming that, if we can get the politics right, the economics will follow.

“If this were true, then we should conclude that, over the past six years, we have got the politics badly wrong--that’s what our economic collapse would imply. There’s a link, of course, between politics and economics, but it lies in using power well, not simply accumulating more of it.”


But such has been the mismanagement of the Soviet economy, under its system of state ownership and central planning, that all the republics demanded that the socialist system be abandoned in favor of the free market.

The question of “How do we get from here to there?” remains unanswered and is as highly contentious as it was before. Throughout the debate, Gorbachev pledged to use his emergency powers to push through the reforms. He has, however, had virtually all the authority he needs for a year and a half; yet, he rarely issued a decree on the economy.

Boris N. Yeltsin, the Russian Federation president, has pushed ahead with free-market reforms, often encountering conservative opposition. But he, too, needed little more power.

Thursday’s moves, thus, were perhaps intended largely to buy time while Gorbachev, Yeltsin and the other leaders work out a new system of sharing power among the central government and the republics--and to demolish the opposition, so apparent in the coup, to fundamental changes.


Four months of negotiations had brought Gorbachev and the republic leaders to agreement on a new Union Treaty, which was to have been signed last month. That itself was a landmark, moving the Soviet Union from a highly centralized state run from the Kremlin to a federal system.

But the abortive coup last month demonstrated to many, if not most, of the Soviet Union’s 15 constituent republics that there was still too much power at the center, a concentration that might lead to more coups.