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Gorbachev a Wimp?

February 12, 1989

Probably the last Russian leader who had to put up with press attacks while still in office was Aleksandr F. Kerensky, prime minister in the provisional government that briefly held power in 1917 between the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty and the Bolshevik coup d'etat . Not coincidentally, Kerensky was also the last--in fact, the only--Russian leader chosen by democratic vote. Democracy, in the basic sense of allowing a free choice among parties and candidates, still isn't on the Soviet agenda. But the taboo that has always insulated the Soviet Union's highest official from domestic press criticism has at least been set aside, if only temporarily. Mikhail S. Gorbachev now finds himself accused of a certain wimpishness for failing to do enough to bring about the reforms that he has been championing for four years.

The attack in the political and literary monthly Neva was written by Sergei Y. Andreyev, a young scientist working in western Siberia. Perestroika , he writes, seems doomed to fail, given the opposition of the "new class" of bureaucrats in industry, government and the Communist Party that ignores the interests of the public even as it moves the country to "economic crisis and moral decline." What's needed, Andreyev says, is a system under which independent unions and political organizations can develop to provide a countervailing force to the party's monopoly on power. All this stops short of a demand for a multiparty political system, but the direction of Andreyev's thinking is clear.

The significance of the Neva article is that it seems to give semi-official status to what dissident intellectuals and other radical reformers have for some time been saying in less visible forums. These people support perestroika; what they fear is that its slow progress in the face of an eroding standard of living threatens its collapse, and they believe that this can be avoided only if the pace of change is drastically quickened. What should be made of the attack on Gorbachev himself? Perhaps very little. This would not, after all, be the first time he has used the public exposure of major grievances to support his efforts to speed reform. What bears watching now is whether the Andreyev article will prove a one-time thing or whether it will be taken as a sign that further and even more pointed public debate may now take place.

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