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Power to the Powerful

December 04, 1988

"Our further progress," Mikhail S. Gorbachev told the 1,500 members of the Soviet parliament the other day, "is increasingly coming up against inadequate political institutions. We feel this at every step." In a necessarily circumspect way the Soviet leader was again making his point that hopes for economic development, improved living standards and a freer cultural life are all likely to remain unrealized so long as the Communist Party is able to maintain its absolute hold over virtually every area of society. It is to loosen the party's jealous and often grossly inefficient grip on policy and management that Gorbachev has pushed for and now won approval from the Supreme Soviet for his political reforms.

The changes that he has been granted, Gorbachev promises, will promote "democratization and popular self-government" by partly redistributing power and by introducing a modest element of competitiveness into the electoral process; at least some citizens soon will be able to choose between two or more party-approved candidates for an elective office. With these changes Gorbachev holds out the prospect that decision-making to some extent will be decentralized and that elected party officials will be forced to become more responsive to their constituents' concerns. By the standards of political freedom in the West these are rather mild reforms. In the Soviet context they are fairly far-reaching.

But even as Gorbachev moves to dilute the party's overall authority, he is himself seeking--and by next spring will certainly be given--powers considerably more extensive than those that he now wields. In addition to remaining party leader, which allows him to exercise broad political control, Gorbachev intends to take the new post of president of the Supreme Soviet--an executive position that will give him a major and perhaps dominant voice in domestic and foreign policy. This concentration of power has caused understandable concern among many Soviet intellectuals who otherwise support Gorbachev's restructuring proposals. With the memory of Josef Stalin's accumulation of life-and-death powers still fresh in mind, human-rights campaigner Andrei D. Sakharov not unreasonably asks what will happen when the authority soon to be vested in Gorbachev one day passes to someone else.

It is a fair question, and Gorbachev's assurances that the new political structure will contain adequate checks and balances to prevent abuses comes up short in providing a convincing answer. Gorbachev wants power first and foremost so that he can weed out the ideological recalcitrants and technological incompetents whom he sees standing in the way of the Soviet Union's becoming a more economically efficient society. These are, broadly speaking, benevolent goals, and those in the West who self-interestedly believe that the world will be a safer place if the Soviet Union remains preoccupied with its internal development will applaud them. But the warnings--the reminder, really--that Sakharov and others raise can't be dismissed. Power can be used for good. But, as centuries of Russian history so vividly demonstrate, it can also be turned to terrible and destructive ends.

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