Gorbachev's power to effect change declines as authority on paper has grown

December 30, 1990|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- "GORBACHEV GETS SWEEPING NEW POWERS," said the headline from the Kremlin last week.

Sound familiar? It should. A half-dozen times over the past two years, Mikhail S. Gorbachev has sounded the alarm about the country's deepening crisis, demanded greater powers to govern and gotten them.

The headlines obscure a paradoxical but indisputable fact: Mr. Gorbachev's real power to effect change or control events in the Soviet Union has been steadily decreasing, even as his authority on paper has grown.

"The demand of the president for extraordinary powers in fact shows the weakness of his position," said Alexei I. Kazannik, a law professor and member of the Congress of People's Deputies.

"His powers now are very sweeping -- particularly his power to issue decrees," said a veteran Western ambassador. "But as we keep seeing, it's one thing to issue a decree and another thing to enforce it."

Ironically, parliamentary deputies and political analysts here say, the forces eating away at Mr. Gorbachev's real authority are of his own making.

He permitted free elections, and thousands of independent-minded politicians surfaced to compete for a share of his power, notably Russian leader Boris N. Yeltsin. He loosened the reins on the 15 republics, and several of them decided to bolt from the union.

But while moving decisively toward political freedom, Mr. Gorbachev has moved far more slowly and hesitantly toward economic freedom and the decentralization of power it would entail.

The resulting deterioration of the economy has created a chaotic, explosive situation and has completely undercut his popularity.

Now, Mr. Gorbachev may be able to restore central control, if he can do so at all, only by betraying his own reforms, analysts say.

In his unmistakable turn away from his liberal advisers and republican leaders and toward the conservatives of the Communist Party, the military-industrial sector and the KGB, many Soviet reformers fear that they see precisely such a development.

"His options have grown narrower and narrower," Mr. Kazannik said. "Now he has nothing to rely on except the party bureaucracy, the army and the KGB."

The optimists among Western diplomats in Moscow always have interpreted Mr. Gorbachev's turns to the right as tactical, eventually to be followed by turns back to the left. After Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze's dramatic resignation and warning against dictatorship 10 days ago, they are no longer so sure.

"Shevardnadze was warning that using authoritarian methods can lead to unpredictable consequences," said one diplomat. "It's prudent to be alert to the dangers Shevardnadze was talking about."

As the congress that heard Mr. Shevardnadze's dramatic speech closed Thursday, Vitaly Ignatenko, Mr. Gorbachev's slick new press spokesman, was on hand with his own "spin," to borrow Washington jargon. "Gorbachev got almost everything he wanted," Mr. Ignatenko told the Postfactum news agency. "He has won the congress hands down."

In fact, Mr. Gorbachev did win most of the new powers he was seeking. But the last day of the congress suggested that the old pattern was repeating itself: greater powers written in law, less real authority.

First, the deputies slapped their president in the face by rejecting his nominee for vice president, conservative Russian Politburo member Gennady I. Yanayev. Mr. Yanayev made it into office in a second round of voting.

Second, the Russian Federation, under Mr. Yeltsin's leadership, set up a budget crisis by offering to pay less than 24 billion rubles for Soviet expenses in 1991, compared with a planned 119 billion rubles.

At stake is more than a clash of personalities or raw competition for power, although both of those elements are present in the long-running Gorbachev-Yeltsin conflict, foreign and Soviet observers say.

By advocating a market economy based on private property and the dismantling of the Soviet ministerial bureaucracy, Mr. Yeltsin is carrying the reforms launched by Mr. Gorbachev to their logical conclusion.

Mr. Gorbachev himself flirted with such a program in the fall when he briefly endorsed the radical 500-day economic reform plan backed by Mr. Yeltsin. But under heavy pressure from the defense-dominated central ministries, he backed off.

Since then, he has come to rest on a more conservative, centralized vision of a future Soviet Union, one with a very limited role for private property and a major role for the central ministries. In the opinion of more than one radical deputy, he has been co-opted by the old order.

The military-industrial complex, first identified and named in the United States by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961, is an even more powerful and omnipresent element of Soviet life. It is precisely that economic monolith that has taken Mr. Gorbachev hostage, said Yuri Boyars, a deputy from Latvia.

The conservative bloc of deputies known as Soyuz (Union), whose influence at the congress seemed decisive, "is not really that powerful," Mr. Boyars said.

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