Gorbachev may survive for lack of real alternative

April 15, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Hundreds of thousands of striking workers, from the Black Sea ports of Georgia to the coal mines of Arctic Vorkuta, are demanding his resignation.

Communist die-hards and military hard-liners think he has sold out to the West, ruined the economy and permitted the disintegration of the union. Many want him out.

Radical reformers accuse him of having disguised himself as a democrat -- to cover up that he is really a Communist die-hard and military hard-liner. Many of them want him out, too.

For Mikhail S. Gorbachev, 60 years old and six years in power, it has been a long tumble from the heady euphoria of the first years of perestroika.

Back then, he could dazzle the people at home and abroad by merely telling some of the truth about Stalinism or setting a political prisoner free. He was still measured against his doddering, dogmatic predecessors, who made an effective foil for his relative energy, candor and common sense.

And if, a couple of years ago, his stock with the Soviet public was already falling, the West made up for it with adoring crowds, Man of the Decade awards and, finally, the Nobel Peace Prize.

Today, Soviet newspapers feel free to speculate openly about how long he can last as president and as Communist Party leader and who might replace him. Even as he proposed an emergency "anti-crisis program" last week, Mr. Gorbachev was being discussed as a has-been, almost as a historical figure.

"The resignation of the current president of the U.S.S.R. appears to be an entirely realistic scenario for the development of events in the nearest future," said the reformist Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent Newspaper) on its front page last week. "It's time to think about who might replace him."

"The eternal search for compromise has led Gorbachev to the point where today he is tragically unnecessary to anybody --

TC superfluous figure on the chessboard where the stubborn standoff of the two major political forces continues," wrote Leonid Nikitinsky in a thoughtful analysis for Komsomolskaya Pravda.

"And the unthinkable has happened: The most flagrant conservatives and neo-Stalinists have united with the most radical democrats in the desire to get rid of Gorbachev as soon as possible," Mr. Nikitinsky said.

Despite the extraordinary crescendo of criticism of Mr. Gorbachev, his ambiguous status somewhere between reform and reaction seems likely to preserve him for some time to come.

"He's a boulder in the road," Mr. Nikitinsky wrote. "But if for one side he's blocking the path forward, for the other he's blocking the path backward -- and that must be understood."

Just in the last few days, the leading political groups on the right and the left backed away from demanding his resignation.

Soyuz (Union), the big conservative bloc in the parliament, withdrew its demand for an emergency Congress of People's Deputies to consider Mr. Gorbachev's future. The Soviet president has so completely adopted the conservatives' program that the demand lost its urgency, according to Soyuz members.

But Democratic Russia, reformist archenemies of Soyuz, grew frightened by their own demand for Mr. Gorbachev's resignation. Many democratic leaders, while thoroughly disillusioned with Mr. Gorbachev, believe he might be replaced by someone more reactionary.

At a weekend conference, historian Yuri N. Afanasiev acknowledged the mixed feelings and said that reformers "should not corner" the president.

One senior Western diplomat who has regular contact with Mr. Gorbachev and other top officials says that the talk of resignation is premature.

"I don't see the forces out there to remove the president by illegal means," said the diplomat. "And I don't see any desire on his part to resign.

"To some degree, it's just the normal situation where the opposition is saying, 'Resign and give us a chance,' " he said. "We see it as legitimate political maneuvering in the West. But here it's new."

The one force capable of turning the resignation rhetoric into an imperative is the Soviet strike movement. It began with coal miners, more than a quarter-million of whom are striking for a package of political demands, including Mr. Gorbachev's resignation.

They were joined by another 200,000 Byelorussian industrial workers, who have now suspended their strike for negotiations. Port, rail and manufacturing workers in Georgia are striking for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from South Ossetia, but they also back the miners' political demands. Committees in Leningrad, Kiev and many other cities are considering joining the walkout.

If the strikes spread further, economic collapse could force Mr. Gorbachev to make a drastic move. His only realistic option may become some kind of alliance with Russian leader Boris N. Yeltsin, widely considered the only politician with the credibility to halt the strikes.

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