Nearing the ’90s: Gorbachev as reformer

What changes in American politics and international relations will you see?

Which advances in medical and social issues will affect you and your family?

What changes in technology, business and the economy will have an impact on your lifestyle?

Which concerns in education will make a difference to your children?

These are some of the questions we’ll try to answer throughout 1989 with our year-long theme, “Nearing the ’90s.” We kick off our theme with a look at politics and international relations—Gorbachev, Bush, the Middle East, how the UWs lobbyist works in Olympia.

Herbert J. Ellison

It would be difficult to overstate the scope of the transformation of the Soviet Union that Mikhail Gorbachev has undertaken. Every area of Soviet life has felt the impact of his reforming energy, an impact which extends also to foreign policy. Only by reviewing the ambitious scope of his reforms is it possible to gain an adequate sense of what has happened in a mere four years, and what are the prospects for the future. Even the change accomplished to date is enough to identify him as one of the major political leaders of our time, and of Russian history.

Like all reformers, Gorbachev has had to find the ideas and the political instruments for his enterprise. He came to power with his own reform notions, which appear to date back to his university days when he had close contact with the great Czech reformer Zdenek Mlynar. But like most educated and concerned people of his generation he was well aware of the grave problems of Soviet society and economy, as he detailed them in speeches just before and after his coming to power. Like others of his generation, he had waited impatiently for the passing of the Soviet “gerontocracy” which departed so pathetically in the early 1980s.

But in addition to his own ideas he has needed and sought those of the Soviet intelligentsia, converting that vital group from the chief opponents to the most eager supporters of the party leader. The most important result of glasnost has been the radical reduction of the controls upon intellectual and artistic expression inherited from the past, particularly the Stalin era. Glasnost is a powerful and indispensable element of the reform in two ways: it makes available precise information, long suppressed, about the condition of the society and economy and about the historical events leading to the major national problems, with special emphasis on the Stalin era; and it permits writers, journalists and scholars to ventilate critical analyses and reform proposals in print that could have meant imprisonment as recently as five years ago.

That legacy of past suppression remains a heavy burden: Abel Aganbegyan, Gorbachev’s leading economic advisor, commented sadly on the condition of Soviet economics scholarship and its inability, at the opening of the new reform era, even to formulate the specifics of a viable reform program.

The instrument of reform within the Soviet system must inevitably be the Communist Party. Gorbachev has maneuvered with consummate skill to maximize his control of the party apparatus, making more personnel changes in a shorter time than any figure in Soviet history. The aim has been not only to consolidate his control of the apparatus, but also to introduce energetic, reform-minded leadership at all levels of the party and state structure. That effort is still a qualified success, and he continues to face substantial internal criticism and opposition.

Interestingly, even as he seeks expanded power within the party apparatus, Gorbachev is engaged in reducing party power in the broader political structure in Soviet society. This has been accomplished by reducing party controls in intellectual and cultural life; by adopting economic reforms that transfer managerial initiative and control to the enterprise and permit the growth of the private sector; by strengthening the hitherto wholly dependent and subservient state apparatus and expanding public participation in policy and administration through constitutional reform and allowing formation of public, nongovernmental organizations. In becoming president within the new constitutional structure, Gorbachev might be aiming to create a power base outside the party.

In contrast with the Chinese, Gorbachev has had his major successes in cultural and political change, and has really only begun the tasks of economic reform. Although he has permitted the formation of small private enterprise in the service economy—restaurants, taxis, professional services, etc.—that activity remains a tiny fraction of the total economic activity, and much of it is simply a legalization of the so-called “second economy” which existed previously. His January 1987 “Law on the State Enterprise” was intended to develop a system in which roughly half of the production of state-owned enterprises would be independent of the “command” system in which all aspects of production were planned and directed by the central party/ government apparatus. As might have been predicted, the ministries have guarded their prerogatives jealously, and the enterprise managers have almost no independent access to resources of capital and materials for a substantial shift to independent production. Similarly, early measures of agricultural reform were an admitted failure.

It is now apparent the Gorbachev is preparing much more dramatic moves, borrowing heavily from the Chinese and Hungarian experience: the plan for long-term leases of sizable parcels of farmland—possibly a large-scale privatization of agriculture; the establishment of special economic zones to permit wide economic experimentation and foreign investment and management; a drastic restructuring of foreign trade; the discussion of ways of giving managers access to an independent capital market; and elimination of state subsidies and other schemes of price control in favor of a more rational pricing system.

As the Hungarians, Czechs, Poles and Chinese have learned, the reform of a Stalinist command economy is a complex and politically risky business. At the moment it is clear that Gorbachev has not made the shift that the Hungarians accomplished in 1968, and he lags far behind the Chinese. Meanwhile the vested interests of the established economic bureaucracy combine with broad ideological resistance to abandonment of traditional Soviet socialism to frustrate his efforts. And not the least of the elements of resistance is the workers themselves who have grown accustomed to full job security and slack labor discipline, and for whom Gorbachev has little or nothing to offer in economic incentives. The failure, in four years, to make significant and productive economic reform is doubtless the most worrying problem of the Gorbachev leadership.

Although not a question of structural reform of the economy, Gorbachev’s shift of budgetary priorities is significant. In his vigorous new foreign policy a major priority has been to reduce the enormous military and foreign aid costs. Compared to the United States, the Soviets devote more than twice the proportion of GNP to military costs in an economy of roughly half the American size. The recent unilateral force cuts, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the pressure upon the Vietnamese, North Koreans, Cubans and other Third World clients to live with less Soviet aid are all signs of the urgent effort to shift economic priorities.

The perennial “national question”—how to deal with the relations between the many nationalities that comprise the Soviet state—has become a conundrum for Gorbachev. His glasnost has permitted a powerful upsurge of nationalist expression among all nationalities, including the Russians. The abundant legacy of past mistreatment of the minority nationalities has been exposed. Demands for change are legion: greater use of national languages in education and administration; correction of distortions of the history of national cultures; national language schools for the children of nationalities resident outside their national territory; redrawing of national borders; and, in the Baltic republics, pressure for broad autonomy within the Soviet federal structure. There has already been severe repression of the nationalist movement in Armenia (obscured by the tragic turmoil of the earthquake), and the demands of the Balts have been refused. But the new openness of discussion of grievances and demands, and the broad public participation in nationalist organizations and activities have transformed the scene impressively.

The reforms in law and human rights are also an important part of the Gorbachev program. The unprecedented candor of revelations about the abuses of the law in the Stalin era have been an important part of the process. Talking of millions of victims (rather than the “thousands” of previous commentary), and elaborating the horrendous death toll from the collectivization of agriculture and the purges of the 1930s, these discussions make a powerful case for the need for a strong legal order to protect against despotic power. Nor is the discussion without examples from the Brezhnev era to demonstrate the need for reform. A variety of special legal reform commissions have been at work, one of the most important focusing on revising the laws regulating religious practice and institutions. Religious believers, national minorities, and intellectuals should all be beneficiaries of this process, and there is much to be done, including, one hopes, the elimination of broadly worded provisions of the criminal code which have victimized them in the past. The rights of emigration and of free choice of place of residence within the country are issues strongly pressed from below, and likely to prove very difficult to achieve.

Gorbachev has done an enormous amount to refashion the Soviet role in the international scene. He has transformed the Soviet relationship with the world communist movement, achieving a reconciliation with China, repudiating the tradition of Soviet domination and making Moscow a powerful force for reform rather than repressive Stalinist orthodoxy. He has replaced the image of an aggressive military superpower with that of the peacemaker, reducing Soviet forces in Europe and in Asia, withdrawing from Afghanistan, and encouraging Soviet clients to seek settlement of disputes from Cambodia to Southern Africa and Central America. He has courted even old Soviet enemies and American allies: the European NATO states, Turkey, Israel, Pakistan, Japan and South Korea. And he has undertaken revision of fundamental concepts guiding Soviet foreign and security policy, a “new thinking” which has already had important consequences for practical policy.

In sum, the intelligence and energy of reform leadership has been, and continues to be, immensely impressive. But the obstacles and problems, present and potential, are at least equally impressive. Doubtless the most difficult task is the restructuring of the economy. Neither goals nor means are yet clear, and meanwhile the shortages and disorganization are rampant. Every concession to the national minorities, to the intellectuals and others generates demands for further concessions, aggravates the anxiety and the opposition of conservative forces in the party and in society, and blocks important reform initiatives. And Soviet advocacy of reform in foreign communist parties, particularly in Eastern Europe, can as easily generate instability as improvement. Above all, there is the overwhelming and stubborn resistance of the system, a structure of power, of vested interests, and of rigid ideological perspectives which is unbelievably resistant to change. It is altogether appropriate that Western views of the Soviet leadership have changed increasingly from suspicion and hostility to sympathy and concern.

Herbert J. Ellison is professor of Russian history and chairman of Russian and East European Studies at the UW and has written extensively on Russian history and current Soviet affairs.