The Perils of Perestroika

Article excerpt

DANIEL SINGER

Is Mikhail Gorbachev, for all his vast presidential powers and commanding leadership of the Communist Party, merely to be a transitional ruler of the Soviet Union? If so, a transition to what? Has he unleashed social and national forces that he cannot control from above?

The election of Boris Yeltsin, his populist rival, to the presidency of the Russian Republic has focused attention on some of Gorbachev's difficulties. Yeltsin was elected on a third ballot by only five votes, and might even have lost had the vote not come at such an awkward moment for Gorbachev, with a government austerity program raising fears of rocketing prices and driving Soviet consumers to a panicky buying spree. The program was a reflection of Gorbachev's major problem, the deepening economic crisis. Upon his election, Yeltsin announced the Russian Republic's bid for total sovereignty within a hundred days. That may prove an empty boast, but it is a reminder of Gorbachev's second monumental task: the need to turn an empire based on repression into a commonwealth held together by democratic means. In an illustration of his third and final challenge, 80 percent of the deputies in the Russian Congress that elected Yeltsin were Communist Party members; the influence of that once monolithic institution has clearly waned.

On the eve of the 28th Party Congress, which opens on July 2, it can be argued that pluralism is now taking root not only in Soviet society but in the party itself. As class struggle intensifies throughout the country, it shatters the facade of unity. The revival of nationalism threatens the Soviet Union with fragmentation, while the economic crisis, as it grows, leads to further political polarization. All this weakens the position of Gorbachev, whose chosen ground is the center. Admittedly, he has in the past shown his capacity for recovery and his knack for turning setbacks into springboards. But today he is in a greater predicament than ever before.

The Crumbling Economy. The roots of the current crisis are economic, as were the origins of perestroika. Five years ago the Soviet establishment, quite happy with Brezhnevian immobility for as long as it lasted, resigned itself to radical reform because the engine of management was stalled, the economy was grinding to a halt and social discontent threatened a political explosion. Gorbachev's great historical merit, particularly apparent one year after the Beijing massacre, is to have grasped that economic reform cannot be carried out without a deep political transformation. Hence the exhilarating sight in the early years of the new regime of a country recovering its voice and its memory, of a people rediscovering political action. But economic restructuring -perestroika faded to keep pace with glasnost. Faced with the crucial question that has been left unanswered since Stalin's death - how to make people work without the threat of the concentration camp - the new Soviet rulers, after some hesitation, opted for the mechanism of the market, apparently not fully aware that it functions most naturally within the framework of capitalist coercion. Thus Soviet economic performance in recent years has been tom by a logical contradiction, with enterprises given enough freedom to boost incomes but not quite enough to bully workers into higher productivity. The inevitable happened: In the past two years, incomes rose by 23 percent but output remained stagnant. Despite a switch from heavy to light industry and imports of consumer goods, anything that comes to market is snapped up at once. Too much money is chasing too few goods. Undeterred, the Soviet doctors have been applying the same medicine in small doses, but the patient's condition has only grown worse. According to official figures, in the first four months of 1990 the national income fell by 1.7 percent while individual incomes rose by 13.4 percent. And there is more: To keep up its crucial exports of oil Russia must modernize its extraction in Siberia; grain imports from 1971 to 1988 cost the Soviet Union $70 billion, making it, in the words of the Izvestia journalist who gives these figures, "dependent on imports as the drug addict is dependent on the needle. …