A flicker of reform coursed through the Soviet Union in late March during its first popular election since the Bolshevik Revolution, sweeping in a new era in the history of democracy. Twenty percent of the Communist Party’s top leadership was defeated in the election, and Soviet officials had to face the embarrassing reality that the Party’s choice isn’t necessarily the people’s choice. This was especially demonstrated by the humiliating downfall of those officials running in unopposed races; they had been defeated by “cross-out” campaigns conducted by their constituency.
After the change of the old guard, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev told a group of editors that the Soviet people had chosen the candidates they felt were the strongest supporters of radical reform. Gorbachev told the gathering that the elections provided the first lessons of democracy, and that “the days when Soviet leaders were elected by no one and responsible to no one” were over, according to Vitaly Korotich, editor of the liberal weekly magazine Ogonyok.
“He made no direct mention of any single candidate or race,” Korotich told the Washington Post. “He said that we needed democracy, and that pluralism gives people the possibility to go their own way. The people supported candidates who wanted to do something and work for change.” Gorbachev told Korotich that “when we dreamed about building a democratic society, it meant that there would be winners and losers in elections – that is natural – but that when it was over we all have to work together.”
Gorbachev responded to the defeat of some of his key party officials by saying, “The party will have to draw the necessary conclusions.” He added that he may purge more conservative officials from the party’s senior ranks because they have “lost the people’s faith.” Yuri Solovyov, first secretary of the Leningrad regional party committee and a candidate for the ruling Politburo, was the most surprising defeat. He ran in an unopposed contest in his home district. However, he failed to win a majority of the votes cast because 60 percent of the voters crossed his name off their ballots.
Many regional first secretaries, who are powerful political barons in the party structure, were also defeated in grass-roots campaigns which mobilized long-simmering popular discontent into an unprecedented protest vote. The Soviet people defied the party machine and broke decades of enforced discipline. The party’s power wasn’t seriously at stake; however, several senior party leaders who won elections found their authority had diminished significantly because of heavy votes against them.
In one case, an army general, Boris Snetkov, commander of Soviet forces in East Germany, was defeated by a young upstart lieutenant colonel who campaigned for abolishing the draft and radical reform of the armed services. In the Baltic Republics, voters were confident that the seats would go to candidates who are demanding greater autonomy from Moscow, and in some cases, outright secession from the Soviet Union.
“We had no idea of the depth of the popular discontent,” a senior Soviet journalist told the Los Angeles Times. “There is real anger among the people, and it is focused on the party and precisely on the party’s leaders.” Poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko said the elections were comparable to Neil Armstrong’s moon landing nearly 20 years ago: “One little step for democracy,” said Yevtushenko, “one giant step for the Soviet people.”
Combined with the defeat of at least 37 key Communist party and government leaders was the comeback of deposed party chief Boris Yeltsin, who was campaigning against a candidate backed by the Moscow party machine, Yegor Ligachev. Ligachev had fallen out of Gorbachev’s favor after engineering the publication of a neo-Stalinist counter-reform manifesto, and giving a speech on foreign policy that reflected the ideas of disgraced former general secretary Leonid Brezhnev.
Yeltsin defeated Ligachev after campaigning on unorthodox ideas such as eradication of certain party privileges and greater political pluralism. When appointed as deputy minister in 1985, Yeltsin told Time, “About a day later, somebody turns up offering me privileged access and other products. I didn’t let him take more than two steps inside my office. I said to him, ‘You’re not to blame. I understand why you were sent to me, but I have principles. I am against such things. Don’t ever come here again.’”
Yeltsin was appointed by Mikhail Gorbachev to the Soviet Politburo in December 1985. His first task was to clean up the corrupt Moscow Party Committee where he fired hundreds of bureaucrats and criticized the city for its food shortages and incompetence. He was ousted in November, 1987, after a bitter public debate with Yegor Ligachev, his opponent. His political comeback and campaign is the first ever in modern Soviet history.
“My candidacy was proposed by several hundred organizations in 50 different constituencies around the Soviet Union,” said Yeltsin. However, Yeltsin focused his campaign on the Moscow voting bloc. Considered an unacceptable candidate in 1987 by this bloc, his comeback signalled the influence of Gorbachev’s ideas of glasnost on the Moscow populace. Yeltsin said he agreed with Gorbachev’s ideas, but on matters of “political tactics” differed “slightly from the official leadership.”
Voters reportedly selected candidates who called for more radical change over those content with the current pace. The candidates were not only hand-picked Communist Party functionaries, workers, and directors, but also writers, market-oriented economists, a dissident historian, Baltic nationalists, and representatives of several unofficial political movements. When asked how she voted, one woman told a Soviet television crew, “Against what we have now.”
The Beginnings of Democratic Representation?
Voters were electing representatives to Gorbachev’s newly-formed Congress of Peoples Deputies, which replaced a legislature wholly subservient to the Communist Party. The Congress of People’s Deputies will elect an upper chamber, named the Supreme Soviet, similar to its former rubber-stamp parliament; however, it is meant to function as a real legislature with a session for up to eight months a year. The Supreme Soviet will be responsible for initiating, debating, and passing national laws.
Although the new congress and the standing legislature is still subservient to the Communist Party on major policy decisions, voters elected independent-minded deputies who will make open discussion of ideas very likely. However, all of the winning independent candidates who were not recommended by the Communist Party apparatus - in most cases – are party members who avow unswerving loyalty to Gorbachev.
While voters showed clear dissatisfaction with party functionaries by not re-electing them, those who lost elections did not lose their jobs. They simply were not elected to the national congress of deputies, from which members of the Supreme Soviet will be elected. Additionally, 750 of the most favored officials, including Gorbachev, were appointed earlier in the new legislature. The elections were for the remaining 1,500 seats.
This election was the first nationwide competitive election since 1917 when Lenin’s Bolshevik party was ousted by the Socialist revolutionaries. Lenin ousted the rival party from the government the following July, and began the one-party state that exists to this day. The historic election of 1989 was considered a success by Gorbachev. Last summer he warned a special party conference that “the party’s authority will be put to a serious test” by the elections envisioned in his reforms, and declared that the party leaders had to be made “more effectively answerable to the working people” if the country’s strategy of political, economic, and social changes were to succeed.
Voters sent a mandate of hearty approval for Gorbachev’s policies as well as speedy implementation. Their selection of independent-minded candidates who campaigned on issues such as housing and consumer goods shortages, as well as party privileges and the high level of military spending, showed that voters were more concerned with internal domestic affairs rather than world hegemony.
With a newly formed Congress of People’s Deputies in place and a mandate to speedily implement Gorbachev’s proposed reforms, their first major task is to tackle the economic crisis that has beleaguered the nation despite feeble attempts to implement perestroika in the marketplace. Although Kremlin officials agree there is a need for change, Soviet sources told Newsweek that there has been serious infighting over the questions of how far and how fast.
Are Soviet Reforms Genuine?
Some of Gorbachev’s key reforms were watered down prior to the elections. His proposal to remove government control of prices was postponed, although both Soviet and Western economists agree that decontrol of pricing is the central element in perestroika. Centralized decision-making is still intact with factory managers who have to submit annual plans for approval. They must abide by the approved plans despite changes in conditions.
And although Gorbachev has acknowledged the failure of Stalin’s collectivization and wants to encourage more private farming, his reform is less than a half-way measure. The state continues to control most arable land and ideology prevents a full return to private farming.
Soviet economists say the country is running a budget deficit of 100 billion rubles a year ($150 billion at the official rate of exchange and nearly triple the amount that the Soviet government admitted to only a few months ago.) Western economists such as Judy Shelton of the the Hoover Institution estimate that the deficit may be as high as $250 billion.
Although some of Gorbachev’s Kremlin critics say they want to see the economy improve and have admitted that the old Stalinist, centrally-planned system doesn’t work, they believe Gorbachev’s reforms have “gone too far for their taste” because of non-economic changes such as glasnost (openness) and partial democratization of the political process.”
In his post-election observation, Gorbachev noted the main moving force in perestroika is the Soviet man, and that “today we can register the fact that Soviet man has spoken up – the voters intense activity has shown that. And even if everyone is not pleased by the outcome of the elections – well, there is nothing that can be done about it. The master of the country has spoken.”
As one editor observed, “(T)he military and the Communist Party apparatus have been the true masters of the country since the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. There is no point in speculating on the future of Soviet policy under a more democratic (by Soviet standards) regime until we can be sure the old masters of the Kremlin are willing to relinquish power to Gorbachev’s ‘new masters’ – the people.”
Soviet voters have demonstrated their commitment to democracy and their desire for change; now it is time for the machinery of the Communist party to be replaced. The response of the newly elected Congress of People’s Deputies and Supreme Soviet to the need for economic reform within the next few months will show whether the election was a genuine effort to democratize or a ploy to placate the disgruntled masses.