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Gorbachev's Gamble : Debate Opens Up Political Life, may Bring Economic Reform

January 12, 1986|STEPHEN F. COHEN | Stephen F. Cohen is a professor of politics at Princeton University who writes a column on Soviet affairs for The Nation.

An important but little reported development has occurred in Soviet politics since Mikhail S. Gorbachev became leader last March. In contrast to the sterile public discourse of the conservative Leonid I. Brezhnev era, vigorous debates are taking place in many areas of policymaking--from economics and personnel selection to culture. Conservative officials remain adamantly opposed to meaningful change but reformers, once muffled or banished to obscure journals by the complacent dogmas of the Brezhnev leadership, have gained access to authoritative newspapers for their proposals and criticisms of the status quo.

As is clear from growing disputes in the press and from private discussions in Moscow, this revitalization of Soviet political life is no less significant than the ongoing process of high-level dismissals and appointments. It indicates that a larger struggle between the friends and foes of change is already under way throughout the system. And it suggests that the possibility of broad reform may be greater than is commonly believed in the West.

Gorbachev has been the catalyst of the new policy debates. In particular his calls for more "openness" about longstanding economic problems and for "profound changes" have emboldened reformers to speak out. One wrote in Izvestia, "Everything that yesterday was said at the family table, or in smoking rooms, or in narrow circles is now being said openly." That generalization wildly exaggerates the real parameters of permitted debate, but several officials and establishment intellectuals insist privately that the limits will continue to expand under Gorbachev. Some of them even foresee an impending period of "de-Brezhnevization" similar to the far-reaching political discussions and de-Stalinizing reforms of the Nikita S. Khrushchev years.

Most Western observers have ruled out such a possibility by assuming that Gorbachev is committed to achieving higher economic productivity without any kind of liberalization. But liberal Soviet intellectuals are encouraged by what they perceive to be congenial themes in Gorbachev's speeches, as well as by more concrete steps. One is the appointment to crucial posts of officials reputed to be reform-minded or more tolerant, such as Alexander N. Yakovlev, the new head of the Central Committee's propaganda department. Another is the broadening official indictment of the Brezhnev era, signaled in Pravda on Nov. 10 and obviously authorized by Gorbachev.

Whatever the leader's intentions, there is an unavoidable connection between economic and political change in the state-run Soviet system. Consider the increasingly numerous proposals to reduce central planning and increase the autonomy of enterprise managers; to de-criminalize the vast market in petty consumer services and trade, and to expand the role of family farms. Even if only partially implemented, such measures would have significant political consequences by diminishing the state's bureaucratic control over millions of economic actors--that is, over society.

Other current proposals also have clear political implications. In an effort to find capable, rather than merely obedient, managers the Gorbachev leadership is encouraging several local experiments in electing economic officials. If expanded, as now seems possible, the innovation would directly reduce the traditional appointment powers, or nomenklatura, of party bosses at those levels. Indeed, the "electoral principle" could become a precedent for filling other positions of authority.

Moreoever, Gorbachev's appeal for "openness" in economic affairs has already spread to other policy areas. The writer Evgeny Evtushenko and the theater critic Mark Zakharov have publicly seized the opportunity to demand greater freedom in cultural and intellectual life so that, as Evtushenko put it, "nonconcealment will become the norm of civic behavior." Other liberal artists and intellectuals are pressing censorship authorities to approve an array of banned works, including anti-Stalinist novels by two prominent Soviet writers.

None of these developments should obscure pervasive resistance to change in the Soviet system. Part of it is inertia and general conservative anxiety about anything new. But much of it is militantly self-interested, particularly in response to efforts to reform the economy.

Despite those obstacles, informed Muscovites think that Gorbachev will obtain a pro-reform majority in the Politburo and Central Committee at the upcoming Communist Party Congress. None of them can explain, however, how he will implement any legislative reforms through the recalcitrant bureaucracy. Pressed for an answer, they seek hope in symbolism, as is so often the case in Soviet political life--in the fact that this first congress under Gorbachev is scheduled to open on Feb. 25, the 30th anniversary of Khrushchev's historic speech to the 20th Party Congress, where he suddenly launched his campaign against the Stalinist past.

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