Are We Backing the Wrong Man?

WE in the West have failed to understand the essence and forces of the current revolution in the Soviet Union and, as many times before, find ourselves on the wrong side. A popular view holds that a well-educated leader realized the inadequacy of the Soviet system, its inefficiency, its inability to provide decent living standards and freedoms, and opted for radical reforms. He decided to open and modernize the society, remove the Communist Party from its dominant position, integrate the country into the world community of democracies, and reduce military expenditures drastically. Hence, disarmament, the end of confrontation with the West, the dissolution of the East European bloc, and so on.

Unfortunately, this theory goes, Gorbachev's plans have been sabotaged by the powerful conservative establishment and the inertia of the masses.

The real picture however is much more complex and prosaic. And when you think about it, it is much more promising too.

Gorbachev's policy record is full of very undemocratic decisions. He has concentrated dictatorial power in his hands and used it to purge thousands of inept apparatchiks. But he has also used force against the democratic opposition. He withdrew from Afghanistan, but first he tried a major offensive during which the country was littered with millions of mines and bombs. He did sign important arms control treaties, yet at the same time he has continued the modernization of strategic forces. He eliminated the party's ``leading role'' from from the Constitution and yet refused to depoliticize the KGB, Army, and interior ministry. He talks about a ``regulated market'' but is struggling to preserve the centrally planned economic system and is waging a war against ``speculation,'' a war which has already brought the country to the brink of famine on the heels of the biggest harvest ever.

The image of a lonely knight fighting both the left and the right, against the people's apathy and the system's inertia, has been so irresistible that we have forgiven Gorbachev much. We even made him the Man of the Decade and a Nobel laureate. Blinded by the image, we have failed to see the truly democratic revolution that began last February, led by the intelligentsia and the Russian middle class.

In March, the communists suffered a crushing defeat in the elections to local governments (soviets). Next, the Russian Republic Parliament elected Boris Yeltsin its chairman. Then, Mr. Yeltsin left the Communist Party, and the Russian Parliament adopted a radical program of transition to a market economy. On Dec. 2, the Russian Parliament passed a law allowing private ownership of land. Now it is preparing to adopt a new constitution.

The proposed charter has the most important principles of the American Constitution. It guarantees the individual's right to life and basic liberties, and places them above the interests of the state. It guarantees private ownership and a free market system. It has a checks-and-balances mechanism, separates church and state, and guarantees independent media. Today, Gorbachev and his Praetorian guard remain a chief obstacle to its adoption.

We fear the potentially violent consequences of the economic collapse and political disintegration of a nuclear superpower. We assume that the moment Gorbachev dismantles the KGB and takes his paratroopers from the republics they will jump at each other's throats. We assume that the moment central distribution is canceled the prices will jump and people will starve. How justified, however, are our assumptions and fears?

Do we not believe in the common sense of the people, in democratic forces and the market mechanism any more? We used to think that if people are allowed to ``speculate'' freely they can feed themselves. We used to think that left in charge of their own destinies, people tend to talk to each other and resolve their disputes. We used to think that democratic governments are less threatening than authoritarian ones. Since democratic governments were elected in several Soviet republics a number of treaties of economic cooperation have been signed between them. Yet we stick to the notion that only Gorbachev's paratroopers can keep the peace.

Every day we betray our natural allies, our principles and values, our common sense. Moreover, by helping the keeper of the command-administrative system to resist democratic revolution we might inadvertently promote a Romanian outcome. In October, Yeltsin said that if the central government does not cooperate with Russia, Russia will have to form its own army and security force. In response, Gorbachev has appointed two tough generals of the Army and KGB to enforce law and order.

The forces are becoming polarized. We might defuse a major clash between them if we put our weight on the right side of the scales.

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