What used to be called the Socialist Bloc is shaking from a series of political jolts that may be the beginning of its unraveling. In quick succession, the world witnessed Mikhail S. Gorbachev's dramatic but unsuccessful effort to thwart Lithuania's defiant quest for independence, the Czechoslovaks' and the Hungarians' demands that Soviet soldiers leave their countries and the sensational banning of the Communist Party in Romania.
Pogroms in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, triggered open warfare between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, prompting large-scale Soviet military intervention. Taken together, these events, within days of one another, only underscore the already unbridgeable gulf between Moscow and Eastern Europe. More, they highlight a crisis within the Soviet Union that is spinning out of control. With a sense of Gotterdammerung descending upon the Kremlin, the question of where the Soviet Union is heading becomes urgent.
Part of the answer can be found in the lessons of the Eastern European revolutions.
The first and foremost is that communism, as practiced in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, is unreformable. Tinkering with "scientific socialism" by introducing half-hearted reforms simply hastens crisis conditions. Such efforts, recently undertaken in most Eastern European countries, inevitably ended in failure. Actually, the only reforms that show promise are those that aim to substitute political pluralism and a market-oriented economy for socialism's existing structures. Already under way in Poland and Hungary, this transition will soon occur throughout Eastern Europe.
If communism cannot be reformed, those who seek to salvage it are doomed to failure--or irrelevance. This is the second lesson. Indeed, the record of Eastern European reformers is a sad one. Imre Poszgay of Hungary is a perfect example. Only a year ago, he was considered Hungary's best hope. Today, with the Communist Party disbanded and the country opting for democracy, Poszgay is increasingly a political has-been.
In Poland, the first secretary of the remnants of the Communist Party and once-prominent reformer Mieczyslaw Rakowski is the object of public ridicule as the "last secretary." A similar fate awaits Hans Modrow of East Germany, Petur Toshev Mladenov of Bulgaria and the rest of the Establishment reformers. It is a fair bet than not a single Communist Party will play a significant role in Eastern Europe by the end of the year.
The third lesson is that the patience of long-quiescent masses is limited and that those limits may be getting shorter as the regimes prove incapable of dealing with systemic crises. Alexis de Tocqueville's remark that repressive regimes are at greatest risk of popular revolt when they try to reform--not when they are most oppressive--is especially relevant. The old Leninist propaganda shibboleth, "power to the people," has suddenly become a reality that threatens to sweep the Leninists off the stage.
To what extent does this apply to developments in the Soviet Union and the fate of Gorbachev? A look at recent trends provides some clues.
Perhaps the most important is clear-cut evidence that Gorbachev's reform, particularly economic, has failed. After almost five years of half-measures, the Soviet economy has progressively worsened; it may be near collapse. But rather than introduce urgently needed radical reforms, Gorbachev, in an abrupt about-face, proposes a conservative program replete with administrative measures and no hope for improvement for at least two years.
Unfortunately, the Soviet leader does not have two years. The mood in the country, where buying even basic food items has become a daily struggle, is dark, possibly turning ugly. According to recent polls, 94% of the Soviet people judge the current economic situation as critical. Only 2% believe that it will improve. Reputable Soviet economists foresee food riots, strikes and mass unrest.
This dismal picture is accompanied by a growing political polarization between the system's guardians and its dismantlers, with Gorbachev's hold on the middle ground decreasingly firm. A political battle royal looms, perhaps at the Central Committee plenum later this month.
Among Western Sovietologists, the conventional wisdom, no doubt reinforced by events in the Baltics and Azerbaijan, is that conservatives will again carry the day. Most Communist Party mandarins, the military and KGB hierarchy, plus the vast economic-administrative apparatus, are on the right's side. Increasingly, these conservative forces seek to bolster popular support through jingoistic appeals to Russian imperial consciousness and plain chauvinism, the traditional scapegoats of which are foreigners, Jews and Masons. Ultimately, the hopes of conservatives rest on the reputed yearning of the Soviet masses for a "strong hand."