Mikhail Gorbachev obtained approval yesterday for his imperial presidency. Under laws passed Thursday by the figurehead parliament, the Supreme Soviet, electors will go to the polls on March 26 to choose a new parliament. This will in turn form the basis of a presidential system that, on paper at least, gives the country's leader sweeping powers. Yesterday's vote was the final step in a process that, in less than seven months, has transformed the Soviet system of government.
Mr. Gorbachev's victory was, like some of his previous triumphs, a paradoxical one. It was a victory for his own force of character, his tactical genius, and his skill at making political compromises.
But, while he has now reshaped the summit of power to his own satisfaction, there is no sign that he will be able to impose his will on the grass roots - in many ways the key to power in this enormous state - with such ease. And his triumph comes at a time when the enormous economic and political problems besetting the country are worsening.
The Soviet President's new powers will include appointing the government, signing bills and treaties, and chairing the Defense Council, the country's main military coordinating body. He can hold office for a maximum of 10 years. He is assisted and in theory supervised by a two-tier parliament: the 2,000-member Congress of People's Deputies, which meets once a year; and an approximately 442-member Supreme Soviet, which will sit for six to eight months of the year. Changes to be introduced later next year will reportedly give local elective bodies a say in local government.
The changes that Gorbachev has effected over the past half-year have shifted the focus of power from the Politburo and the Secretariat - the two bodies form the Communist Party's inner Cabinet - to one position, the presidency. The Politburo-centered system was essentially collegial: While a forceful leader like Gorbachev could win over the Politburo to his way of thinking, debates have been known to last for up to 10 hours at a time.
By contrast, the changes approved yesterday have come with remarkable speed. The idea of a presidential system was sprung on the 19th Communist Party conference in June. Conference delegates were apparently too surprised and too accustomed to obeying the party leader to oppose the proposal.
Gorbachev then accelerated the pace. On Sept. 30, a one-hour meeting of the full Central Committee approved major political changes. Well-informed Soviet sources say that the Secretariat, one of the key bodies in the Communist Party hierarchy, essentially disappeared. So did the unofficial but extremely powerful position of second secretary, occupied up to then by the relatively conservative Yegor Ligachev. Party secretaries - senior members of the leadership assigned to oversee specific policy issues - now report directly to Gorbachev ``as and when he asks their advice,'' one well-placed source says.
Gorbachev supporters contend that he needs sweeping powers to push through rapid reform. Reform has to come quickly or not at all, they say: Time and public patience is running out. But prominent intellectuals worry that the new system gives one person too much power. Andrei Sakharov has described the proposals as a well-intentioned coup d'etat and a time bomb. Many are concerned that the system could provide a short cut to a new dictatorship, or could later be used to roll back the reform program.
Despite his new powers, the challenges facing Gorbachev are daunting. Opposition to reform remains strong inside the multimillion-member corpus of bureaucrats, and among many regional party leaders. Both groups are believed to be disturbed at the turmoil of perestroika politics and dismayed at the threat to their own powers. Regional and local party bodies will play a major role in choosing candidates for the new Supreme Soviet.
Antireform forces have a potential ally in the general public. Food and basic consumer goods are becoming scarcer. People appear less interested in high-level politics. Some reformers worry that party and government officials opposed to change are doing their best to make the situation even worse.
And the national question refuses to go away. The leaders of the three Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have enthusiastic and well-organized constituencies behind them. The republics' leaders walk a narrow line between total defiance of Moscow - which could mean destruction of their aspirations - and compromise, which would spell loss of support at home.
Gorbachev speaks of the new system giving a new sense of democracy to the country. By offering the grass roots and local elective bodies greater voice in decision-making, he hopes to draw people back into political life. But he is determined to have the last word.
Yesterday's final session provided a vivid example of this. At the end of official presentations, the chairman of the session asked if there were any comments from the floor. To some surprise, a deputy from Latvia, Gemma Skulme, rose. She proposed an amendment that would essentially have given the country's 15 constituent republics veto right over legislation concerning their vital interests.
A few minutes later the session's chairman proposed a vote on the amendment. Gorbachev, sitting a short distance behind the chairman, glanced across at Anatoly Lukyanov - a fellow lawyer, university contemporary, and the Politburo member in charge of political reform. Gorbachev shook his head and appeared to say something. The session chairman corrected himself. Instead of voting on the amendment, he proposed that the deputies vote on a proposal to consider the amendment ``inexpedient.''
Twenty-three deputies nonetheless voted against the proposition - the largest ``no'' vote of the day. The official news agency Tass later offered its own interpretation of the vote. ``The parliamentarians considered that such an approach [the Skulme amendment] would seriously complicate decisionmaking.''