Reverberations of the fall of Boris Yeltsin

CONDITIONS surrounding the removal of Boris Yeltsin as head of the Moscow Communist Party organization might spell a short-term setback for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's influence in the Politburo. Yet, the long-term impact of this incident is likely to be strongest, not inside the Kremlin walls, but in domestic policy in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe. Mr. Gorbachev and other top Soviet officials have declared on a number of occasions that the introduction of glasnost was not cosmetics, but necessary for meaningful reforms. One can believe them, since they embraced ``openness'' as a means for avoiding even more profound domestic changes.

Mr. Yeltsin has been given a senior position in the construction industry. But his earlier abrupt dismissal, for openly voiced criticism, sharply reduces chances that glasnost will meet the expectations of its backers.

What was the whole idea about?

First of all, Gorbachev quickly discovered that his demands for greater efficiency and discipline could not be supported by tangible rewards and sounded therefore like the empty rhetoric of his predecessors. The response to such appeals would be predictable.

Second, the Soviet leader has identified entrenched bureaucracy as one of the greatest obstacles to his reforms. Yet, while he is ready to introduce more of a free-market mechanism into the Soviet economy, he wants to keep it supervised by the central authority. Such reforms would, however, only redirect the activity of the bureaucracy instead of breaking its power.

Third, in a country without checks and balances and without democratic traditions, planned elections on prescribed levels could be easily manipulated. It has been already proposed by some, for example, that those in power would need fewer votes to win than their opponents because of their accumulated experience.

Glasnost was supposed to reconcile those aspects of reforms that would otherwise seem contradictory or unworkable. People were expected to use it for exposing corrupt local leaders as well as mismanagement and inefficiency in the economy. Greater freedom was also to promote enthusiasm and creativity of the working masses before more tangible rewards would be at hand.

Soviet statistics show that things are not working in accordance with this party prescription. National income produced in the January-September period of this year grew 2.4 percent - well below expectations. Meanwhile, as Pravda pointed out, even in such important areas as machine building, ``on the whole an extremely unsatisfactory and alarming situation is taking shape.'' In Soviet trade with developed capitalist countries, energy resources alone account for about 80 percent of Soviet exports, while goods of high technical standards for less than 1 percent. Soviet workers and managers regard the emphasis on exports as a punishment, because it forces them to turn out better products.

Does all this mean that glasnost in the Soviet society is totally ineffective? Well, there is not much glasnost there. Unlike a few editors in Moscow who are ready to test the limits of openness, Soviet people are much more cautious. In letters to newspapers, they explain why.

The reason is fear: ``Things are difficult for anyone who dares to stand up for the truth.'' Other letters ask what guarantees there are against a return to the old days, when those who spoke out were imprisoned. ``Without such guarantees,'' a letter to Izvestia said, ``anyone can see what this fearfulness is based on.''

Abrupt dismissal of Yeltsin from his post will definitely slow, if not derail, glasnost. For the ordinary people, the details of the affair are less important than the familiar scenario of the openly speaking man inevitably losing his job. If the candidate member of the Politburo cannot criticize, then who can? If not behind the closed doors of the Central Committee, then where?

No less an inhibiting influence will Yeltsin's dismissal have in Eastern Europe. The economic situation there is rapidly deteriorating while even Moscow publicly admits that specialization and cooperation among communist countries is progressing ``extremely slowly.'' To embolden existing and potential reformers in Eastern Europe, Gorbachev has recently criticized ``the arrogance of omniscience'' and promised anew greater tolerance toward his allies.

Postwar history of Eastern Europe suggests, however, that the reformers have lost their top position in power clashes much more often than the conservatives have. Meanwhile, rapid decline of East European economies has robbed most of the opponents of reforms in power of effective political and moral influence. The result is likely to be the lack of a resolve in a region at a time when fast and bold action is needed.

One can understand Gorbachev's frustration with the lack of progress in the USSR. Unfortunately he has it wrong. Genuine glasnost cannot work in the old political system. As a letter quoted in Izvestia stated, ``It is necessary to restructure the state apparatus and its attitude to people in such a way that you cannot abuse an official position, that unpublicized privileges and rewards are abolished, that you cannot do bad work, produce poor quality, etc.'' This is a task for Gorbachev and the Soviet leadership. Glasnost cannot either precede it or fulfill it.

Milan Svec is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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