Variety of 'Sofa Parties' Attempt to Find Foothold in Changing Soviet Union


October 13, 1991|By ROGER BURBACH

MOSCOW — Moscow. -- While Boris Yelstin's political ascendancy continues to grab international headlines, a new array of political forces is quietly staking out positions in opposition to him. Only weeks ago these groups stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the Russian "White House" blocking the advance of army tanks. Today they even see each other as political antagonists.

"We are no longer dealing with the dead weight of the Communist party," explains Maxim Meyer, editor of the weekly newspaper Kommersant. "We are shaping a new future in which a variety of political groups will be competing with each other."

The process of political differentiation actually began on the barricades. Though united against the coup leaders, many demonstrators made it clear they also had serious differences with Mr. Yelstin and what he represents.

"We are here to defend our enemies," read the placard carried by Socialist party leader Alexander Popov.

The recent founding of the Party of Labor highlights the new realignments under way. The driving force behind it is the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions, which represents more than 90 percent of the workers in the greater Moscow area.

Other affiliates include the Socialist party, the Confederation of Anarcho-Syndicalists and the Green movement -- all parties that took shape during the period of Perestroika. The new party is now setting up affiliates in St. Petersburg and in Soviet republics outside the Russian federation.

In its founding statements the party makes clear it has little in common with the "old type." Rejecting the Communist "concept of a vanguard party," it claims it will be "constructed by initiatives from below," endorses the principal of "economic democracy," and calls for "the genuine equality of women," and for the "rights of national, cultural and religious minorities."

The new party places itself squarely in opposition to Mr. Yelstin and his allies in the "Democratic Russia" movement, accusing them of siding with the "new propertied classes" made up largely of old communist bureaucrats.

"In their haste to construct the 'shining capitalist future,' " it declares, Mr. Yelstin and his forces "reject everything connected in any way with socialism, including such elementary social guarantees as the right to work, free education and free health care."

Activists say they look for inspiration to "an international left movement" they believe is exemplified by groups like the Workers Party of Brazil, with its multi-political currents, its concern with social movements and its effort to link workers and environmental issues.

The Sandinista Front of Nicaragua is also of interest, especially now that the Sandinistas are an opposition movement seeking to defend popular interests while trying to assist national reconstruction and reconciliation.

The obstacles facing the Party of Labor are enormous. Not least of these is the fact that the very history of Communist party rule here has discredited socialist values and the idea that working people can be organized as a force for changing society.

Another obstacle is that 70 years of Communist totalitarian rule decimated "civil society," or groups and organizations at the grass roots that could act independent of the state and party apparatus. The period of Perestroika did enable new political forces such as the Green movement to develop, but these are based largely among intellectuals and represent the breakup of political forces within the Communist party itself.

People here refer to them as "sofa parties," implying that their members could be gathered together on a sofa in someone's living room.

The vast majority of Soviet people, meanwhile, remain largely uninvolved. Some observers argue that those who manned the barricades during the coup were not ordinary people but students and the new political intelligentsia.

"Many people actually sympathized with the coup leaders in that they wanted an end to the political turmoil and corruption and a return to the pre-Gorbachev days of stability," says Rogovin Vadim of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

Yet the very passivity of the Russian population also makes it that much harder for the Party of Labor to constitute itself as a "party of a new type." Lacking an independent political culture, party activists complain that the Soviet Union is even more backward than Third World countries such as Brazil.

Far from contending for any direct political power right now, they say their foremost task is "building consciousness and democratic participation in party and union decisions" at the work site.

"We should not lament our minority status," argues a key strategist for the party. "As a minority group staking out a clear position against the new capitalist system, we can begin to build an authentic grass roots movement that will be the basis for reshaping society from below."

Roger Burbach, who teaches in the peace and conflict studies program at the University of California, Berkeley, is doing research in the Soviet Union. He wrote this article for Pacific News Service.

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