Chris Harman


Gorbachev clamps down

(February 1991)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.139, February 1991, pp.24-25.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Repression in the Baltic states, a clampdown across the USSR and new question marks over the relationship with the West are signs that the USSR is at a turning point. Chris Harman assesses the weaknesses of the democratic opposition and looks at the prospects for the future.

THE GULF war has come at a very convenient time for the rulers of the USSR. It has enabled them to clamp down on opposition without anything like the world wide publicity that accompanied their attack on Baku a year ago.

In the Baltic states Committees for National Salvation have been set up by the military, the KGB and the apparatus of the Soviet Communist Party. These committees declared they were taking power and called for help to ‘restore order.’

The very same military, KGB and party apparatus then moved in to give them help, seizing radio and TV stations, printing plants and stocks of newsprint, shooting 14 people in Lithuania and four in Latvia.

Events in Moscow are just as significant. Gorbachev has been remodelling his government, weeding out ministers and advisors with a ‘liberal’ reputation and replacing them with conservatives.

Former foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze was the best known official to be removed. He had threatened resignation over repression before – notably, as the arch conservative Ligachev revealed on Moscow radio, after the massacre in Tbilisi two years ago.

On those occasions Gorbachev retreated from repressive measures in order to keep him. This time he let him go. But the most important change was made before the resignation. A liberal Minister of the Interior was replaced by Boris Pugo, former head of the Latvian KGB, assisted by General Gromov, former head of the Soviet armed forces in Afghanistan.

Since then there has been a systematic clampdown on dissent within broadcasting. Each move has given the repressive forces more confidence to go further. So, in the last week of January, Pugo and defence minister Yazov announced army units with armoured troop carriers would ‘keep order’ in the cities and the interior ministry took powers to enter any private premises and seize material there.

The New Reaction

THE LAST months of 1990 saw a growing consensus in the bodies of the bureaucratic ruling class around the need for greater repression.

Conferences took place of 3,500 industrialists and of 1,500 military representatives.

Gorbachev himself admitted there were ‘serious and trenchant criticisms’ of him for allowing a breakdown of discipline at the industrialists’ conference. TASS reported of the conference, ‘the unanimous demand of the audience was to reaffirm managers’ rights.’

At the military conference, Izvestia told, ‘there were repeated demands for the country’s leadership to act in defence of the army. Otherwise the army will be forced to do this for itself.’

Meanwhile, a writer in Komsomolskaya Pravda could report there a growing cult of Stolypin, who restored Tsarist order after the 1905 revolution.

Those embodying the new reactionary mood at the top of the regime are not old tune Brezhnevites, most of whom retired three or four years ago. Their places have been taken by younger people, often in their mid thirties.

Such people were all too happy to go along with talk of perestroika in 1986-7, since they could see only too well that the command economy was entering into crisis. They were even prepared to accept glasnost, so long as it entailed the media helping them oust those who held positions they coveted. Nor are they opposed in principle to the market. Even conservatives Yazov and Ligachev will recognise it has an important role to play.

But they will not tolerate a breakdown in social cohesion which threatens their ability to reap the fruits of exploitation.

The Failure Of The Democrats

THE DEMOCRATIC opposition seemed to be sweeping all before it in the first half of last year.

It won local elections in Moscow and Leningrad, and its nominee, Boris Yeltsin, became president of the Federation.

It gained influence over national big circulation newspapers and popular television programmes. And in the autumn it was able to press Gorbachev into discussing the economic strategy with which it was most identified, the Shatalin 500 day programme.

But its apparent successes hid deep rooted weaknesses, which facilitated the advance of reaction.

The democrats came mainly from the intelligentsia, a middle layer of Soviet society, plus a sprinkling of Nomenklatura members on the one side and workers on the other.

They saw the way forward as in persuading those above them to accept reforms which left the basic structures of existing society intact.

They believed these reforms would eventually improve the condition of those below them. Yet they were prepared to see such conditions deteriorate in the short term, often complaining openly that the workers were ‘lazy’, ‘subsidised’ and too ‘egalitarian’ in their demands.

So it was that the great majority of the democrats were initially fervent partisans of Gorbachev.

But to achieve their aims of forcing more reform from the leadership they needed to mobilise popular support, for which they had to promise improvements in workers’ living standards, even though their own reform programmes would actually make them worse.

The democrats tried to reconcile this contradiction through a magical faith in the market and privatisation. They claimed ‘freeing the enterprises’ from vertical control by the apparatus would automatically lead to them producing goods that people needed. They didn’t recognise that the market leads to huge imbalances between supply and demand, particularly if industry is organised into giant enterprises as in Russia and the West today.

They talked of copying the Western variant of capitalism and put their faith in the utopian visions of the system preached by groups like the Adam Smith Institute.

This strategy led them to demobilise their supporters once they themselves were elected to office. For they were democrats who were frightened that democracy might lead the mass of people to demand too much.

As Gavril Popov, democratic Mayor of Moscow, wrote in the New York Review of Books in the summer, the ‘danger’ with ‘democracy’ was that it would lead to an ‘egalitarian’ and ‘populist’ wave that they would be unable to control.

The 500 day economic programme was stillborn and not just because Gorbachev and Nikolai Ryzhkov obstructed it as they dimly recognised it took no account of the realities of a disintegrating state capitalist command economy.

The proof of the pudding was in the eating – or to be more accurate, in the indigestion. The Yeltsin-influenced Russian Federation parliament joined the Gorbachev-controlled Soviet parliament in sabotaging the programme. As one of the architects of the 500 days programme, Gregory Yavlinsky, told Moscow News:

‘The Russian government raised the procurement prices of meat and the move was echoed by the union government. There appeared the decree on wholesale prices. There was a new wave of inflation instead of stabilisation of the rouble.’

Once that had happened, even he admits the programme could not work.

Meanwhile the democrat-controlled city councils did not have sufficient control over resources to carry through their pledged reforms. They were forced to carry the can for unpopular national decisions like allowing price rises. Inevitably splits began to emerge between councillors prepared to collaborate with the local Nomenklatura, and those who were really concerned with solving their constituents’ problems.

These rows were exploited to the full by those sections of the media still under conservative control.

Much the same applied to republican governments in the Baltic states. Even as conservative forces closed in on the first week in January, the Lithuanian government tried to balance the republics’ books by pushing through a four fold increase in food prices.

Huge crowds demonstrated outside the parliament, the deputies reversed the price rises, and the ‘moderate’ prime minister Prunskiene resigned, fleeing to Switzerland.

These farcical scenes quickly gave way to tragedy as Soviet interior troops seized on them as an excuse to attack the television centre and murder 14 people.

Very large protest demonstrations in Moscow and Leningrad followed the onslaught on Lithuania. But they were not as huge as the liberal press claimed and there is no evidence to back up reports of strikes in the Leningrad region.

The mass of people give no support at all to the conservatives. But their support for the democrats is at best passive and unlikely to be turned by the democrats into the active force needed to counter the advance of reaction.

Fortunately, however, there are still contradictions within the right wing camp which might slow its advance down.


ALL THE sections on the right agree on the need to ‘restore order’. But then what?

Those closest to Gorbachev still want ‘order’ to be accompanied by a move from the command economy to the market, albeit a gradual one. They want to control minority nationalities through a combination of consent and coercion. And they want to keep close relations with the US and Germany.

But reaction, like revolution, has a momentum of its own. The restoration of ‘order’ means increasing the power of those least disposed to reform of any sort. It means reliance on those who want to whip the nationalities into line and on those who believe too much was bargained away in return for the deal with the US.

Gorbachev’s group is going most of the way with reaction, but seeking to hold its wilder elements in check. This is clear over the Baltic states.

Colonel Viktor Alksnis of the right wing Soyuz group of Soviet deputies told reporters (according to the Guardian‘s Jonathan Steele):

‘Gorbachev himself ordered the Latvian events after urging the Committee for National Salvation to set itself up as a pretender to power ... paving the way for Gorbachev to impose presidential rule ... But Gorbachev held back from the brink. He ordered the special forces to withdraw from the Latvian interior ministry.’

‘Moscow betrayed us,’ complained Rubiks, the head of the committee.

The pressure on the Baltic republics is not going to disappear. While clamping down on the media in the Baltic republics Gorbachev may well try to persuade the least determined elements in the nationalist governments to make concessions, so strengthening the centre’s ability to crack down further at a later stage. This, after all, was the tactic which worked in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

But in seeking to unleash reaction at the same time as controlling it, Gorbachev is playing a very dangerous game. He will increase the hatred for himself on both left and right, making it likely that he personally will be the first victim of an advance by either.

An Unstable Equilibrium

THE USSR was in an unstable equilibrium for three years, shifting spasmodically to the left – towards greater glasnost, greater mass mobilisation, greater splits in the ruling circles under pressure from below.

Now it is in an unstable equilibrium moving to the right, with a growing confidence among the ruling class in their ability to impose an authoritarian regime, with a democratic movement that has proved incapable of acting decisively in office with popular leaders who have no programme for dealing with the crisis of society – but also with enormous resentments among the mass of the people against the whole power structure.

These resentments can still explode, as they did in the miners’ strike of the summer of 1989, and blow apart the schemes of the new reaction.

Meanwhile, it is the task of the meagre forces of genuine socialism in the USSR to draw the lessons from the tragicomic antics of the democrats over the last period and to try to lay down the foundations of a different sort of oppositional politics.

Fortunately, the divisions within the reactionary bloc leave a little time for a new beginning to be made.

Last updated on 11 June 2010