Soviet Scramble for Property

May 19, 1991

Karl Marx got a couple of things right. He warned early Communists against taking power in Russia because the country was too backward for successful utopian experimentation. He also preached that political and social institutions derive their forms from the underlying economic circumstances in which they exist. Today's Soviet Union illustrates how painful it is when both the economic conditions and institutions are changing.

In much Western analysis, recent tensions between the Kremlin and the 15 Soviet republics have been interpreted almost exclusively on ethnic grounds. Yes, some of that tension is genuinely ethnic. Much of it, though, is simple squabbling over property that has belonged either to the Communist Party or the Soviet state. As power shifts from "the center" to the republics and non-Communist institutions, a scramble is going on for property that is about to be redistributed. This, in turn, fuels endless conflicts and even violence.

Lithuania and Latvia are cases in point. The Kremlin scorned -- but gingerly condoned -- those Baltic republics' declarations of independence until they began confiscating Communist Party property. When that happened, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev sent troops to occupy and defend party buildings and printing plants, triggering violent confrontations.

Economic wealth and political power are being gradually redistributed, though. In a desperate attempt to end crippling strikes, Mr. Gorbachev recently transferred control of coal mines from the Soviet Coal Industry Ministry to Boris N. Yeltsin's Russian Federation. Another example is the new television service which gives Mr. Yeltsin a forum to compete with the Soviet Central Television, a network directly under Mr. Gorbachev.

Ironically, most republics have long had their own broadcasting facilities. But control over local industrial production facilities has been a sticking point in many republics' attempts to negotiate an amicable divorce settlement from the Kremlin. Through central ministries and monopolistic production associations, the Kremlin has ruled the republics' economies. In Estonia, for example, 80 percent of the local industries are controlled by central ministries in Moscow, whose interests, hiring policies and production priorities are constantly in conflict with the aspirations of local authorities.

An anti-Communist group in Moscow is currently trying to force a referendum on whether the Communist Party should return and redistribute its property. Many Soviets think the party's "nationalization" of property has brought nothing but misery to their country. The examples of recent transfers of mining and broadcast property indicate Mr. Gorbachev is beginning to understand he has to stem some of the popular anger.

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