BOOK MARK : When Political Illiterates Try to Humanize a Monolith

<i> Eduard A. Shevardnadze was first secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia and Soviet foreign minister from 1985-90.</i> Perestroika <i> aimed to reform a monolith from the inside, but the reformers never fully thought through the consequences, contends the author. An excerpt</i>

With all its dramatic turns, perestroika created conditions for the formation of a new coalition of sovereign states. It removed the force holding together wholly heterogeneous components. Now that this “cement” has crumbled, we must speak of another force, the force of vital necessity. This force will be the basis for a union of sovereign countries, that is, an economy capable of binding them into one through a commonality of vital interests. In our case, that is a normal market economy.

But here again, we face the problem of intelligence. The sleep of reason produces monsters. Yet an awakening reason risks the same, if the lethargy has been as long as ours. Did the architects of perestroika take that into account? Did they, in fact, consider everything in order to prevent dangerous warps in the reconstructed building? Were they even capable of such reckoning, while remaining products of their time, with its dominant attitudes and assumptions?

I have only one answer to these questions: No! If we call a spade a spade, it is impossible not to admit that the highly brutal mechanism of the system--built for confrontation--failed to withstand the overload of the warfare of each one against all which it produced, and broke down before our eyes. This began long before perestroika .

My account of perestroika ‘s tragic failures has no self-justifying motive. I am constantly emphasizing my own role and responsibility. In speaking of the achievements, I do not say they are to my credit; they became possible thanks to a consciousness of necessity that had matured in the minds of many people. When I criticize the administrative command system, I am not, like it, striving to locate yet another phantom enemy. My analysis has tried to be sober and unbiased.


The three whales, the three pillars of the system--a centralized economy; the political system with its main unit, the party-state apparatus, and the unitary state--were objectively unable to reform themselves or to give up their “conquests” voluntarily. Just as objectively, an inadequate regard for the interests of the Establishment that represented those pillars could not help but provoke a reaction--first dislike of perestroika , then resistance to it.

The attacks on perestroika or the attempts to subvert the politics of the new thinking can be explained by the fact that both its theory and its practice destroyed this monolith from the inside. The renunciation of global confrontation and class struggle, and the priority given to universal human values, pluralism of opinion and political freedoms are rightly viewed by the system as explosive devices. The system’s main task was to smash them.

For all my desire to see a different kind of country, I did not volunteer for the role of a destroyer. Destruction is fraught with the risk of perishing under the rubble. From the standpoint of both ordinary life and politics, it is not sensible to close one’s eyes to the real interests of various groups and pretend they don’t exist.

That was the main miscalculation: We fell victim to political illiteracy. We tried to create a new reality by the old methods, sending out directives from above. After all, directives are only accepted by a community that is connected with the command center either by a unity of interests or by ties of obedience and fear. When these are absent, the directive does not work.


But where could political literacy come from if there was no need for it in the conditions of a power monopoly? If the art of governance had been casually replaced by the habits of coercion by decree? And how were we to operate without cutting off the branch on which the system had us sitting?

The example of the conversion of the defense industry comes to mind in this connection. It struck a painful blow at the interests and positions of hundreds and thousands of people. The foundation of our industry, the military-industrial complex, which had accumulated countless inventories of intellect, knowledge, experience and the latest technology, began to crumble. I am familiar with many of the factories and their managers--they are excellent enterprises and remarkable leaders--and I share their dissatisfaction with their situation. It could have been avoided by designing a nationwide, scientifically based program for profound conversion and elaborating social safety nets for defense employees. Instead, there was an order from on high and hasty, ill-conceived actions to win “merit badges.”

And the apparatus? They, too, were not treated as people, either in the propaganda exposes or in matters of living conditions. After all, the bureaucracy is also thousands of intelligent workers and their families, people who were turned into pariahs in one stroke, under the laws of total revenge. Just as in the bad old days, using the methods of the same nomenklatura , they were treated in a heap, as if they all fitted into one pattern. On top of that, it was forgotten that besides the apparatus there is a 19-million member party, the majority of whom wanted change and should have been the bulwark of perestroika . But for that to happen, both the party majority and the apparatus would have had to undergo perestroika .

That was deferred, and we lost the opportunity to create a true democratic foundation that could have passed in a relatively painless fashion through the phase of dismantling the power monopoly. Only under public pressure was Article 6 of the Constitution, which had safeguarded the “leading role of the party,” repealed.


And the unitary state? The transition to democratic forms should have been made smoothly, not breaking the structures but transforming them gradually. Overall, my priority is gradual evolution, and I fought for a stage-by-stage strategy. It did not happen. It turned out that a correct step toward a law-based state struck a blow at executive power. Now we speak of its paralysis.

By Eduard Shevardnadze. Reprinted with permission of the Free Press.

BOOK REVIEW: “The Future Belongs to Freedom,” by Eduard Shevardnadze, is reviewed on Page 1 of today’s Book Review section.