"We are witnessing the formation of a new political
elite." Yevgeniy Ambartsumov, an eminent Soviet historian, made that
statement not long ago in reference to major political events reshaping the
traditional Kremlin power structure.
At a gathering of the Communist Party's Central Committee
last September, General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev rammed through the
appointment of supporters to the Politburo while removing some Brezhnev
holdovers. Then, at a special session of the 1,500-member Supreme Soviet the
next day, he took the post of President and set about revamping the government
to his liking, with provision for what is supposed to be a democratically
Commentators have debated the long-term significance of
these moves. What is undisputed, however, is that they are aimed at firmly
consolidating the authority of Gorbachev—and of his allies in the reformist
camp. In his analysis, Ambartsumov said as much:
"The [Gorbachev] leadership wants to demonstrate
unequivocally its intention to concentrate all power in its own hands in order
to accelerate the implementation of reforms. Democratic methods are not yet
sufficiently developed. People want results. Gorbachev has given a sign to the
population by shouldering all responsibility himself"
Gorbachev may be, as he suggests, merely seeking new power
to advance the cause of perestroika, his drive to restructure Soviet economic
and social life in ways that provide incentive and choice for individual
Even so, Soviet intellectuals express deep concern about
the possible fate of perestroika as the new process unfolds. Human-rights
champion Andrey Sakharov, on his visit to the US, delivered a stern warning
about the danger of concentration of power, even in the name of democracy.
"Today it will be Mr. Gorbachev," says the Nobel Prize-winning
physicist. "Tomorrow, it may be somebody else. There are no guarantees—we
must be frank about this—no guarantees."
Soviet citizens are preparing to go to the polls March 26
for the first contested election of a Congress of People's Deputies. Yet, while
Gorbachev has claimed that he wants to reduce Party management of industries
and social organizations, Party organs are assigned a powerful role in the new
setup, and local bodies face restraints.
In short, the new power structure, on close examination,
does not appear to be more "democratic," in a Western sense, than the
old version. Strong Party influence seems certain to continue.
Calls for Democracy
The recent flurry of political change has its origins in the
Extraordinary Nineteenth Party Conference convened by Gorbachev last summer
in Moscow, the first gathering of its kind since a few months before the 1941
German invasion. Here, Gorbachev unveiled his blueprint for perestroika of the
Party apparatus and the agencies of state power.
Not accidentally, the conference was preceded by official
disclosures of Party abuses and excesses committed during the reign of Joseph Stalin.
This process, far from being of purely historical interest, was intended to
discredit the way the Party had operated in the past and to raise—and
answer—basic questions about what could be done to prevent such abuses and
excesses from recurring.
One critical requirement, in Gorbachev's view, was to bring
to the Party a measure of internal democracy that might serve as a check on
powerful members. Candidate Politburo member Georgiy Razumovskiy, writing in
the Party journal Kommunist, made Gorbachev's case plainly with the blunt statement
that "the avant-garde role of the Communist Party in perestroika and
renewal of society is impossible without deep democratization of internal
Party life." This democratization, he emphasized, was "the key
directive of the Nineteenth Party Conference."
Movement was not visible, however, until the early fall of
1988. Action began at a Plenum of the Central Committee hastily called for
Friday, September 30. Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze canceled meetings
in New York to hurry back to Moscow. The Minister of Defense and Chief of the
General Staff were out of the country, too. In the days before the leaders
met, 25,000 KGB security troops, MVD Internal Troops, and an elite Guards
Division were mobilized around Moscow. The last time this occurred was in
October 1964, when Premier Nikita Khrushchev was ousted.
"Stalin Would Be
The Plenum was of monumental importance, though it lasted
less than one hour. When it was over, startling changes had taken place, and
Gorbachev was firmly in control. Robert Gates, the CIA's deputy director at
that time, observed afterward that "Stalin would have been proud of the
smoothly orchestrated, forty-four-minute . . . session in which people were
fired, retired, demoted, and promoted with no dissent or even discussion,
[all] delegates voting as one."
Abruptly pensioned off from the Politburo were full members
Andrey A. Gromyko, the seventynine-year-old President who had served
twenty-eight years as Foreign Minister, and Mikhail Solomentsev, a senior
functionary. Also removed were candidate members Petr Demichev and Vladimir Dolgikh,
both Brezhnev appointees.
Then came the promotions. Vadim Medvedev, a Gorbachev ally,
became a full member of the Politburo. Assuming posts as candidate members
were Aleksandr V. Vlasov, the Interior Minister, and former Party secretaries
Aleksandra P. Biryukova and Anatoliy I. Lukyanov. These two also are reputed
to be attuned to Gorbachev's agenda. Viktor Chebrikov, chief of the KGB,
retained his Politburo seat and joined the Secretariat, but relinquished
control of the USSR intelligence organization.
The top Party apparatus was reorganized in its entirety.
The number of departments that previously ran the day-to-day activities of the
Central Committee appears to have been cut in half. Taking the lead role in
Party functions were six new Party commissions: Ideology, chaired by Medvedev;
Party and Personnel, chaired by Razumovskiy; Domestic Law, chaired by
Chebrikov; Social and Economic Affairs, chaired by Nikolai Slyunkov;
Agriculture, chaired by Yegor Ligachev; and International Politics, chaired by
The main goal of this change evidently is to reduce the
authority of entrenched interests that once held forth in the CPSU Secretariat.
All problems now are to be resolved by the commissions instead. As explained
by prominent Soviet journalist Yegor Yakovlev: "The filter provided by
the Secretariat no longer exists."
The changes in Party structure have reverberated far beyond
Moscow. Once the national-level CPSU was restructured, the Communist Party
apparatus of each of the republics, krays, oblasts, and cities followed suit.
For example, the Georgian Communist Party formed five commissions and slashed
its departments from seventeen to eight.
At the local level, the main goal of the reforms will be to
unify two previously independent and highly unequal posts—that of the local
Communist Party secretary and that of the chairman of the local soviet, or
council. Until now, the local council leader lacked authority to act, while the
Party boss issued orders without regard to likely consequences. When things
went wrong, the poor council chairman took the blame. Now, plans call for one
person to take up both positions and for that person to be accountable for results.
According to Pravda, other candidates may contest the Party
secretaryship itself. "This," the official Party newspaper explains,
"will increasingly force the first secretaries to change their work
style, to try to be accessible to the people, to show constant attention and
concern for their needs and earn the confidence of the masses." Otherwise,
it is implied, the voters can throw a Party Secretary out of power.
With reform of the Party launched, Gorbachev wasted no time
in seeking changes in the formal system of USSR state power, which is separate
and distinct from the CPSU apparatus itself. His apparent objective: Provide
the population more power—or at least the illusion of power—and, in the process,
give the government more legitimacy.
At the Party Conference in the summer of 1988, Gorbachev outlined
the shape of a new legislative body, requiring amendments to the 1977 Brezhnev
Constitution. Because of this need, Gorbachev convened an Extraordinary
Session of the Supreme Soviet on October 1, 1988, the day after the dramatic
CPSU Plenum. Events were orchestrated. First, Gromyko stepped down as the
President of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. Then Gorbachev was
unanimously elected to replace him as head of state. Once installed as
president, Gorbachev possessed formal authority to propose constitutional
The amendments were intended to produce a fresh government
model, one with expanded power and more formal independence from the Party
bosses. It was to be based on a strong president chosen by a popularly elected
Congress of People's Deputies. This, incidentally, might also provide
Gorbachev with a power base outside the Party apparatus itself.
These proposed changes were not published until late
October, leaving little more than a month for public debate before the Supreme
Soviet was to ratify the changes. Estonians, in particular, bitterly complained
about the short time allocated to discussion. Estonia's parliament went so
far as to vote itself a right to veto decisions made in Moscow—a display of
local impudence that Moscow, unsurprisingly, rejected out of hand. At the end
of November, the Supreme Soviet met in regular session and adopted the
A New Congress
At the heart of the electoral reform is the new concept of
a Congress of People's Deputies. It will have 2,250 members, one-third more
than the old Supreme Soviet, which it supersedes. These deputies are to be
elected directly in a complicated system based on territorial districts,
national-territorial districts, and "social organizations."
Territorial districts will be formed, much like
congressional districts in the United States, to represent equal numbers of
voters in the USSR. A total of 750 territorial districts will be formed, each
represented by a deputy.
So-called national-territorial districts correspond to
various Soviet regional subdivisions—union republics, autonomous republics, autonomous
oblasts, and autonomous okrugs. A total of 750 of these national-territorial
districts will be formed, each represented by a deputy. Each of the fifteen
union republics will receive thirty-two deputies; each of twenty autonomous
republics, eleven deputies; each of eight autonomous oblasts, five deputies;
each of ten autonomous okrugs, one deputy.
The most controversial—and, to political reformers,
dismaying—provision of the election scheme concerns selection of the final bloc
of deputies. A total of 750 deputies—fully one-third of the new Congress—is
reserved for representatives of Party-dominated "social
organizations." The "social" deputies can be grouped this way:
• Three groups—the Communist Party itself, USSR trade
unions, and USSR cooperative organizations—each will elect 100 deputies, for a
total of 300.
• Six groups—the Young Communist Organization (Komsomol),
women's groups, war and labor veterans, scientific workers, artists' unions,
and other officially recognized social organizations—each will elect
seventy-five deputies, for a total of 450.
These "social" deputies will be
"elected" by delegates to their congresses or conferences or
plenums, with each participant having one vote. The outcome of these votes will
not be in doubt. The Communist Party, for example, submitted a list of 100
handpicked candidates for its rank-and-file to "elect" to the 100
seats reserved for the Party. This is expected to be near-universal practice.
Complaints are being voiced. In Latvia, authorities went so
far as to pass a resolution condemning such indirect election of deputies from social
organizations. "It does not conform with the principles of democracy,"
the resolution states.
In fact, the Party is also likely to have a major influence
on which candidates fill the remaining seats, despite the theoretical right of
ordinary Soviet citizens to nominate rival candidates. The new system will
offer voters only a limited degree of choice. Terms are for five years. A
deputy may not serve more than two consecutive terms.
The Congress will meet once a year. At its first meeting
after the March election, deputies will elect a President and a new,
reconstituted Supreme Soviet by secret vote.
That Gorbachev will be elected President is a foregone
conclusion. He already has stated that he expects the chairman of the Supreme
Soviet also to be the Party's General Secretary. But the President's term will
be for five years, and no one, not even Gorbachev, can serve more than two
consecutive terms. On paper at least, the Congress will have the right to remove
the President at any time by secret ballot.
A Stronger President
The role of the President has been significantly enhanced by
the new constitution. Although Brezhnev, Yuriy Andropov, and Konstantin
Chernenko served simultaneously as General Secretary and President, the latter
office was ceremonial. Now, the Soviet President, rather than the General
Secretary, will be the highest official of the Soviet state and will represent
the USSR to the nation and in international relations.
Specifically, the President will supervise preparation of
questions to be examined by the Congress of People's Deputies and the Supreme
Soviet. He will submit reports to the Supreme Soviet on the state of the
country, on domestic and foreign policy, and on the defense capability and
security of the USSR. He will head the small, secretive, and powerful Council
of Defense. He will conduct negotiations and sign international treaties.
Under the new constitutional provisions, members of a new
Supreme Soviet will be elected by secret vote of the Congress. This marks a
major departure from the past. Then, voting for deputies was direct, but only a
single, Party-approved candidate was offered. Frequently, a prominent person
was assigned to represent a district whether voters wanted him or not.
A case in point is the Kuldiga district of Latvia, which
not long ago proposed recalling its deputy, Admiral Sergey G. Gorshkov, on
grounds that he "is detached from the everyday problems of his electors."
The voters didn't realize how detached Gorshkov really was. He had died six
months earlier, and no one had bothered to inform Kuldigans about his demise.
The new Supreme Soviet, like the old, will have two
chambers: the Soviet of the Union and the Soviet of the Nationalities. The two
chambers will be numerically equal, but each will be much smaller than the old
Supreme Soviet, totaling only 542 members. There will be regular spring and
fall sessions, each lasting up to four months. The new Supreme Soviet sessions
will take the form of separate or joint sittings. Between sessions, there will
be sittings of their permanent commissions and of the USSR Supreme Soviet
committees. One-fifth of the Supreme Soviet will be renewed each year.
What will the Supreme Soviet do? In this new structure, it
evidently has been designated as the primary decision-making body with respect
to the Armed Forces. The Supreme Soviet will form the USSR Defense Council and
ratify its composition, appoint and effect changes in the supreme commands of
the USSR Armed Forces, determine basic measures in defense and state security,
be able to initiate mobilization, be able to proclaim a state of war in the
event of armed attack on the USSR or to meet treaty obligations, decide the
uses of the armed forces to meet treaty obligations to maintain security,
establish military ranks, institute orders and medals, and confer honorary
titles of the USSR.
Under the former system, all this was carried out by the
Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. Now, the Presidium is charged with handling
military affairs when the Supreme Soviet is between sessions. The Presidium
will be able to declare a state of martial law or emergency for the whole
country or in particular areas.
Having never had a true standing body at the national level,
Soviet citizens are not altogether certain how much power the new Congress and
the new Supreme Soviet will have. In the past, the elegant words of the
Constitution have not been matched by deeds, to say the least. Only time will
tell if real power has been given to the soviets and taken away from the
The democratization unleashed by perestroika is not without
serious problems. On October 7—ironically, Constitution Day in the Soviet
Union—riot police in Moscow were called in to break up a protest demonstration
claiming that "Partocracy is not democracy." In Leningrad, similar
protests aimed at the political reforms were also dispersed. People's Front
movements were spreading through the three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia,
Thus far, Gorbachev's economic perestroika has not shown any
major successes. Economic progress, if it comes, can be measured—in terms of
more food, better housing, quantities of export goods. The progress of
political perestroika will be more difficult to measure. Will there be more
human rights, more democracy and freedom? Or will there be increased
concentration of power in the hands of one individual or a small group of
like-minded individuals? Although the jury is still out, all signs point
toward emergence of a new political elite to replace the old.
Harriet Fast Scott, a
Washington consultant on Soviet military affairs, is a member of the General
Advisory Commission on Arms Control and Disarmament. She has lived in and
traveled extensively through the USSR and maintains one of the largest private
US libraries of Soviet military publications. Her translation and analysis of
the Third Edition of Marshal V. D. Sokolovskiy's Soviet Military Strategy is a standard reference work, as are four
other of her books—The Armed Forces of the USSR, The Soviet Art of War, The
Soviet Control Structure, and Soviet
Military Doctrine, all co-written with
her husband, Dr. William F. Scott.
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