The New Soviet Elite

March 1, 1989

“We are witnessing the formation of a new political elite.” Yevgeniy Ambartsumov, an emi­nent Soviet historian, made that statement not long ago in reference to major political events reshaping the traditional Kremlin power struc­ture.

At a gathering of the Communist Party’s Central Committee last Sep­tember, General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev rammed through the appointment of supporters to the Politburo while removing some Brezhnev holdovers. Then, at a spe­cial session of the 1,500-member Supreme Soviet the next day, he took the post of President and set about revamping the government to his liking, with provision for what is supposed to be a democratically elected parliament.

Commentators have debated the long-term significance of these moves. What is undisputed, how­ever, is that they are aimed at firmly consolidating the authority of Gor­bachev—and of his allies in the re­formist camp. In his analysis, Am­bartsumov said as much:

“The [Gorbachev] leadership wants to demonstrate unequivocal­ly its intention to concentrate all power in its own hands in order to accelerate the implementation of re­forms. Democratic methods are not yet sufficiently developed. People want results. Gorbachev has given a sign to the population by shoulder­ing all responsibility himself”

Gorbachev may be, as he sug­gests, merely seeking new power to advance the cause of perestroika, his drive to restructure Soviet eco­nomic and social life in ways that provide incentive and choice for in­dividual Soviet citizens.

Even so, Soviet intellectuals ex­press deep concern about the possi­ble fate of perestroika as the new process unfolds. Human-rights champion Andrey Sakharov, on his visit to the US, delivered a stern warning about the danger of con­centration of power, even in the name of democracy. “Today it will be Mr. Gorbachev,” says the Nobel Prize-winning physicist. “Tomor­row, it may be somebody else. There are no guarantees—we must be frank about this—no guaran­tees.”

Soviet citizens are preparing to go to the polls March 26 for the first contested election of a Congress of People’s Deputies. Yet, whiler­bachev has claimed that he wants to reduce Party management of indus­tries and social organizations, Party organs are assigned a powerful role in the new setup, and local bodies face restraints.

In short, the new power struc­ture, on close examination, does not appear to be more “democratic,” in a Western sense, than the old ver­sion. Strong Party influence seems certain to continue.

Calls for Democracy

The recent flurry of political change has its origins in the Ex­traordinary Nineteenth Party Con­ference convened by Gorbachev last summer in Moscow, the first gathering of its kind since a few months before the 1941 German in­vasion. Here, Gorbachev unveiled his blueprint for perestroika of the Party apparatus and the agencies of state power.

Not accidentally, the conference was preceded by official disclosures of Party abuses and excesses com­mitted during the reign of Joseph Stalin. This process, far from being of purely historical interest, was in­tended to discredit the way the Par­ty had operated in the past and to raise—and answer—basic ques­tions about what could be done to prevent such abuses and excesses from recurring.

One critical requirement, in Gor­bachev’s view, was to bring to the Party a measure of internal democ­racy that might serve as a check on powerful members. Candidate Polit­buro member Georgiy Razumov­skiy, writing in the Party journal Kommunist, made Gorbachev’s case plainly with the blunt state­ment that “the avant-garde role of the Communist Party in perestroika and renewal of society is impossible without deep democratization of in­ternal Party life.” This democratiza­tion, he emphasized, was “the key directive of the Nineteenth Party Conference.”

Movement was not visible, how­ever, until the early fall of 1988. Ac­tion began at a Plenum of the Cen­tral Committee hastily called for Friday, September 30. Foreign Min­ister Eduard Shevardnadze can­celed meetings in New York to hurry back to Moscow. The Minis­ter of Defense and Chief of the Gen­eral Staff were out of the country, too. In the days before the leaders met, 25,000 KGB security troops, MVD Internal Troops, and an elite Guards Division were mobilized around Moscow. The last time this occurred was in October 1964, when Premier Nikita Khrushchev was ousted.

“Stalin Would Be Proud”

The Plenum was of monumental importance, though it lasted less than one hour. When it was over, startling changes had taken place, andrbachev was firmly in con­trol. Robert Gates, the CIA’s depu­ty director at that time, observed afterward that “Stalin would have been proud of the smoothly orches­trated, forty-four-minute . . . ses­sion in which people were fired, re­tired, demoted, and promoted with no dissent or even discussion, [all] delegates voting as one.”

Abruptly pensioned off from the Politburo were full members An­drey A. Gromyko, the seventy­nine-year-old President who had served twenty-eight years as Foreign Minister, and Mikhail Solo­mentsev, a senior functionary. Also removed were candidate members Petr Demichev and Vladimir Dol­gikh, both Brezhnev appointees.

Then came the promotions. Vadim Medvedev, a Gorbachev ally, became a full member of the Polit­buro. Assuming posts as candidate members were Aleksandr V. Vlasov, the Interior Minister, and former Party secretaries Aleksan­dra P. Biryukova and Anatoliy I. Lukyanov. These two also are re­puted to be attuned to Gorbachev’s agenda. Viktor Chebrikov, chief of the KGB, retained his Politburo seat and joined the Secretariat, but relinquished control of the USSR intelligence organization.

The top Party apparatus was reor­ganized in its entirety. The number of departments that previously ran the day-to-day activities of the Cen­tral Committee appears to have been cut in half. Taking the lead role in Party functions were six new Par­ty commissions: Ideology, chaired by Medvedev; Party and Personnel, chaired by Razumovskiy; Domestic Law, chaired by Chebrikov; Social and Economic Affairs, chaired by Nikolai Slyunkov; Agriculture, chaired by Yegor Ligachev; and In­ternational Politics, chaired by Al­eksandr Yakovlev.

The main goal of this change evi­dently is to reduce the authority of entrenched interests that once held forth in the CPSU Secretariat. All problems now are to be resolved by the commissions instead. As ex­plained by prominent Soviet jour­nalist Yegor Yakovlev: “The filter provided by the Secretariat no lon­ger exists.”

The changes in Party structure have reverberated far beyond Mos­cow. Once the national-level CPSU was restructured, the Communist Party apparatus of each of the re­publics, krays, oblasts, and cities followed suit. For example, the Georgian Communist Party formed five commissions and slashed its de­partments from seventeen to eight.

Local Accountability

At the local level, the main goal of the reforms will be to unify two pre­viously independent and highly un­equal posts—that of the local Com­munist Party secretary and that of the chairman of the local soviet, or council. Until now, the local council leader lacked authority to act, while the Party boss issued orders with­out regard to likely consequences. When things went wrong, the poor council chairman took the blame. Now, plans call for one person to take up both positions and for that person to be accountable for results.

According to Pravda, other can­didates may contest the Party secre­taryship itself. “This,” the official Party newspaper explains, “will in­creasingly force the first secretaries to change their work style, to try to be accessible to the people, to show constant attention and concern for their needs and earn the confidence of the masses.” Otherwise, it is im­plied, the voters can throw a Party Secretary out of power.

With reform of the Party launched, Gorbachev wasted no time in seeking changes in the for­mal system of USSR state power, which is separate and distinct from the CPSU apparatus itself. His ap­parent objective: Provide the popu­lation more power—or at least the illusion of power—and, in the pro­cess, give the government more le­gitimacy.

At the Party Conference in the summer of 1988, Gorbachev out­lined the shape of a new legislative body, requiring amendments to the 1977 Brezhnev Constitution. Be­cause of this need, Gorbachev con­vened an Extraordinary Session of the Supreme Soviet on October 1, 1988, the day after the dramatic CPSU Plenum. Events were or­chestrated. First, Gromyko stepped down as the President of the Pre­sidium of the Supreme Soviet. Then Gorbachev was unanimously elect­ed to replace him as head of state. Once installed as president, Gor­bachev possessed formal authority to propose constitutional amend­ments.

The amendments were intended to produce a fresh government model, one with expanded power and more formal independence from the Party bosses. It was to be based on a strong president chosen by a popularly elected Congress of People’s Deputies. This, inciden­tally, might also providerbachev with a power base outside the Party apparatus itself.

These proposed changes were not published until late October, leaving little more than a month for public debate before the Supreme Soviet was to ratify the changes. Esto­nians, in particular, bitterly com­plained about the short time allo­cated to discussion. Estonia’s par­liament went so far as to vote itself a right to veto decisions made in Moscow—a display of local impu­dence that Moscow, unsurprisingly, rejected out of hand. At the end of November, the Supreme Soviet met in regular session and adopted the constitutional amendments.

A New Congress

At the heart of the electoral re­form is the new concept of a Con­gress of People’s Deputies. It will have 2,250 members, one-third more than the old Supreme Soviet, which it supersedes. These deputies are to be elected directly in a com­plicated system based on territorial districts, national-territorial dis­tricts, and “social organizations.”

Territorial districts will be formed, much like congressional districts in the United States, to rep­resent equal numbers of voters in the USSR. A total of 750 territorial districts will be formed, each repre­sented by a deputy.

So-called national-territorial dis­tricts correspond to various Soviet regional subdivisions—union re­publics, autonomous republics, au­tonomous oblasts, and autonomous okrugs. A total of 750 of these na­tional-territorial districts will be formed, each represented by a dep­uty. Each of the fifteen union re­publics will receive thirty-two dep­uties; each of twenty autonomous republics, eleven deputies; each of eight autonomous oblasts, five dep­uties; each of ten autonomous okrugs, one deputy.

The most controversial—and, to political reformers, dismaying—provision of the election scheme concerns selection of the final bloc of deputies. A total of 750 depu­ties—fully one-third of the new Congress—is reserved for represen­tatives of Party-dominated “social organizations.” The “social” depu­ties can be grouped this way:

• Three groups—the Communist Party itself, USSR trade unions, and USSR cooperative organiza­tions—each will elect 100 deputies, for a total of 300.

• Six groups—the Young Com­munist Organization (Komsomol), women’s groups, war and labor vet­erans, scientific workers, artists’ unions, and other officially recog­nized social organizations—each will elect seventy-five deputies, for a total of 450.

These “social” deputies will be “elected” by delegates to their con­gresses or conferences or plenums, with each participant having one vote. The outcome of these votes will not be in doubt. The Commu­nist Party, for example, submitted a list of 100 handpicked candidates for its rank-and-file to “elect” to the 100 seats reserved for the Party. This is expected to be near-univer­sal practice.

Complaints are being voiced. In Latvia, authorities went so far as to pass a resolution condemning such indirect election of deputies from social organizations. “It does not conform with the principles of de­mocracy,” the resolution states.

In fact, the Party is also likely to have a major influence on which candidates fill the remaining seats, despite the theoretical right of ordi­nary Soviet citizens to nominate rival candidates. The new system will offer voters only a limited de­gree of choice. Terms are for five years. A deputy may not serve more than two consecutive terms.

The Congress will meet once a year. At its first meeting after the March election, deputies will elect a President and a new, reconstituted Supreme Soviet by secret vote.

That Gorbachev will be elected President is a foregone conclu­sion. He already has stated that he expects the chairman of the Su­preme Soviet also to be the Party’s General Secretary. But the Presi­dent’s term will be for five years, and no one, not even Gorbachev, can serve more than two consecu­tive terms. On paper at least, the Congress will have the right to re­move the President at any time by secret ballot.

A Stronger President

The role of the President has been significantly enhanced by the new constitution. Although Brezhnev, Yuriy Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko served simultaneously as General Secretary and President, the latter office was ceremonial. Now, the Soviet President, rather than the General Secretary, will be the highest official of the Soviet state and will represent the USSR to the nation and in international rela­tions.

Specifically, the President will su­pervise preparation of questions to be examined by the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet. He will submit reports to the Supreme Soviet on the state of the country, on domestic and for­eign policy, and on the defense ca­pability and security of the USSR. He will head the small, secretive, and powerful Council of Defense. He will conduct negotiations and sign international treaties.

Under the new constitutional pro­visions, members of a new Supreme Soviet will be elected by secret vote of the Congress. This marks a major departure from the past. Then, voting for deputies was direct, but only a single, Party-approved candidate was offered. Frequently, a promi­nent person was assigned to repre­sent a district whether voters want­ed him or not.

A case in point is the Kuldiga dis­trict of Latvia, which not long ago proposed recalling its deputy, Ad­miral Sergey G. Gorshkov, on grounds that he “is detached from the everyday problems of his elec­tors.” The voters didn’t realize how detached Gorshkov really was. He had died six months earlier, and no one had bothered to inform Kuldigans about his demise.

The new Supreme Soviet, like the old, will have two chambers: the So­viet of the Union and the Soviet of the Nationalities. The two cham­bers will be numerically equal, but each will be much smaller than the old Supreme Soviet, totaling only 542 members. There will be regular spring and fall sessions, each lasting up to four months. The new Su­preme Soviet sessions will take the form of separate or joint sittings. Between sessions, there will be sit­tings of their permanent commis­sions and of the USSR Supreme So­viet committees. One-fifth of the Supreme Soviet will be renewed each year.

Making Defense Decisions

What will the Supreme Soviet do? In this new structure, it evidently has been designated as the primary decision-making body with respect to the Armed Forces. The Supreme Soviet will form the USSR Defense Council and ratify its composition, appoint and effect changes in the supreme commands of the USSR Armed Forces, determine basic measures in defense and state secu­rity, be able to initiate mobilization, be able to proclaim a state of war in the event of armed attack on the USSR or to meet treaty obligations, decide the uses of the armed forces to meet treaty obligations to main­tain security, establish military ranks, institute orders and medals, and confer honorary titles of the USSR.

Under the former system, all this was carried out by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. Now, the Pre­sidium is charged with handling mil­itary affairs when the Supreme So­viet is between sessions. The Pre­sidium will be able to declare a state of martial law or emergency for the whole country or in particular areas.

Having never had a true standing body at the national level, Soviet citizens are not altogether certain how much power the new Congress and the new Supreme Soviet will have. In the past, the elegant words of the Constitution have not been matched by deeds, to say the least. Only time will tell if real power has been given to the soviets and taken away from the Communist Party.

The democratization unleashed by perestroika is not without se­rious problems. On October 7—ironically, Constitution Day in the Soviet Union—riot police in Moscow were called in to break up a protest demonstration claiming that “Partocracy is not democracy.” In Leningrad, similar protests aimed at the political reforms were also dis­persed. People’s Front movements were spreading through the three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Thus far, Gorbachev’s economic perestroika has not shown any ma­jor successes. Economic progress, if it comes, can be measured—in terms of more food, better housing, quantities of export goods. The progress of political perestroika will be more difficult to measure. Will there be more human rights, more democracy and freedom? Or will there be increased concentration of power in the hands of one individual or a small group of like-minded indi­viduals? Although the jury is still out, all signs point toward emer­gence of a new political elite to re­place the old.

Harriet Fast Scott, a Washington consultant on Soviet military affairs, is a member of the General Advisory Commission on Arms Control and Disarmament. She has lived in and traveled extensively through the USSR and maintains one of the largest private US libraries of Soviet military publications. Her translation and analysis of the Third Edition of Marshal V. D. Sokolovskiy’s Soviet Military Strategy is a standard reference work, as are four other of her books—The Armed Forces of the USSR, The Soviet Art of War, The Soviet Control Structure, and Soviet Military Doctrine, all co-written with her husband, Dr. William F. Scott.