Failing Economy Pushes Gorbachev Near the Edge
Rivals await his ouster but offer few innovations to solve Soviet crisis
TIRED and empty-handed, Mikhail Gorbachev has returned from his journey to the Far East to face darkening skies at home. As the Soviet economy does a disappearing act, Mr. Gorbachev's enemies on the right and left are closing in. Gatherings of conservatives and democrats joined in pushing for the fall of Gorbachev's government this past weekend, though with quite different aims in mind.
The proposed solutions to the nation's crisis range from conservative demands for a state of emergency to democrats' calls for formation of a "round table" coalition government.
Yesterday Soviet Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov presented the final version of the government's own "anti-crisis" program to the Soviet parliament. The program promises to stop an economic slide that, according to just-released government data, resulted in a whopping 10 percent drop in the gross national product in the first three months of the year.
"We have to work," Mr. Pavlov said. "We have to understand the nation is in danger." The portly, crew-cut premier says the economy can be turned around by the last quarter of this year through a combination of market reforms, austerity, and strict resubordination of the rebellious republican governments to the authority of the central administration.
"The sociopolitical situation should be stabilized," Pavlov told the Russian Information Agency after a Cabinet meeting this past Saturday. "If there is no discipline, responsibility, and order, it is senseless to speak about the country coming out of the crisis."
Pavlov's problem - and Gorbachev's - is that the population is being asked to endure hardship by a government that it neither trusts nor supports.
"Only a government trusted by the people can carry out strict measures to form the basis for a market economy," economist Stanislav Shatalin, author of a radical 500-day reform plan, told a conference this past weekend.
The government's anti-crisis program contains little that is likely to garner support, particularly from the republics' governments. It does offer some long-awaited reform steps, such as freeing prices, giving state-run enterprises freedom of action, privatizing state property, and lifting controls on wage levels. Some of these measures are similar to the 500-day reform plan.
But the government plan also combines the market steps with an attempt to restore central direction and curb republican autonomy. For example, it proposes a special management regime for the power, communication, and transport industries, hinting at moves to halt all strikes in those industries. All decisions by republican and local officials that contradict the center's policies would be frozen, and officials failing to carry out the orders of "superiors" would be punished. It also proposes banning pol itical strikes for the rest of the year, a move aimed at muting the growing labor movement led by the nearly two-month-long miners' strike that demands the government's resignation.
Radical economist Nikolai Petrakov, who left his post as an economic adviser to Gorbachev early this year, condemned the program as based on "principles of imperial thinking." Speaking at a conference to assess the Soviet crisis, Mr. Petrakov said the call to restore a strict hierarchical power structure would return the country to the situation before perestroika (restructuring). "In fact," Petrakov said, "violence is the only method for implementing the Cabinet's program."
The Pavlov program does not have much backing from the right either. The Soyuz (Unity) faction of conservative Communists, which met this past weekend, presented its own program. They want to decrease prices rather than free them, and to abolish the government's 5 percent sales tax. But they echo the government plan in calling for introduction of a six-month state of emergency, including suspension of organized political activity and reestablishment of centralized economic management.
The Soyuz program is directly aimed at Gorbachev, whom program advocates accuse of indecisiveness. The conservatives called for an emergency meeting of the country's highest legislature, the Congress of People's Deputies, to call Gorbachev to account. "I am personally for Gorbachev's resignation," Soyuz co-chairman Viktor Alksnis told reporters.
Hard-liners are also preparing to assail Gorbachev tomorrow when a plenary meeting of the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee is convened. Rumors of Gorbachev's pending ouster as Party general secretary abound, fueled by calls from local party organizations across the country to disassociate the party from the government's economic policies.
"The Communist Party should be led by another man," said Col. Nikolai Petrushenko, one of Soyuz's more flamboyant leaders. "It would make it possible for the party to bluntly state that the policy pursued by the president is the program of the opposition and not the program and goals of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union]."
A gathering of democratic factions from republic parliaments across the Soviet Union met Sunday and yesterday in Moscow as well. The democrats called for a transfer of power from central government structures to the republics and formation of a "government of popular trust."
Increasingly, however, the democrats are quieting attacks on Gorbachev, in part because of right-wing moves against him. Instead they are offering to form a coalition bloc. Russian parliament deputy chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, deputy to Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, told the conference last weekend that he did not support miners' demands for Gorbachev's resignation. "However," Mr. Khasbulatov continued, "the president should consider formation of a national reconciliation government with the participat ion of the republics."
The prominent Polish intellectual Adam Michnik, a leader of the Solidarity movement, compared Gorbachev's situation to that of Poland's former President, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski. After a visit here, Mr. Michnik wrote in the liberal weekly Moscow News:
"Jaruzelski was in a similar predicament twice before: on the verge of the introduction of the state of emergency, and in December 1988, before deciding to legalize Solidarity and embark on the Round Table policy. The general had to accept the idea of this Round Table, because military rule hadn't solved the country's problems. What will Gorbachev's choice be?"