The Soviet System: From Crisis to Collapse

By Alexander Dallin; Gail W. Lapidus | Go to book overview

PART 2
Reform and the Political
and Social System

What began as an attempt at limited reforms, emphasizing discipline and "acceleration," by 1987 had begun to move in the direction of glasnost and what was labeled democratization. Soviet politics was gradually transformed in the process, as the expansion of public debate brought with it a new political "pluralism," the emergence of a public arena permitting spontaneous, grassroots political organization, and ultimately the sanctioning of competitive elections and of the principle of a multiparty system.

In the process the Soviet political system itself underwent a variety of institutional changes. Existing structures, such as local soviets, were transformed; paper institutions, such as the national and republic legislatures, became real ones; the media acquired an important new role; some Communist Party functions were shifted to the state; other institutions, such as the Communist Youth League, withered; and some needed organs, such as the judiciary branch, remained sadly inadequate. Meanwhile an array of new political actors, activities, and arenas came into improvised existence, not always neatly fitting into the existing structures. The prestige and legitimacy of different organizations and individuals proved to be highly volatile.

It remains a matter of some controversy just why the reformers became committed to democratization to begin with—scarcely the obvious direction to pursue for a leadership reared on the notion of a centrally directed and controlled "vanguard party." If it was out of a recognition that it was essential to galvanize the public and to mobilize it in support of reform, against the presumably recalcitrant incumbents, did this strategy pay off?

Some contend that it opened the door to centrifugal processes over which the government lost control. As participation outran institutionalization and precipitated a novel defiance of authority, it unwittingly contributed to the backlash demanding limits on free speech and on political activity, and a return to "law and order."

Others question the decision (contrasting with the Chinese experience) to give political democratization priority over economic reform: In their view, this amounted to an invitation to destabilization, making economic reform impossible, and postponed the time when some tangible payoff of the reforms could be demonstrated to the public at large.

The developments of the past few years have also revealed limitations and weaknesses of democratic institutions in the Soviet context: of legislatures, political

-89-

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