SAN DIEGO — Soviet perestroika has entered a critical stage. As President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and his reformers accelerate their dismantling of the old party and government structures and push radical economic reforms--aiming to make change irreversible--their ultimate success is problematic. These desperate attempts at modernization happen at a time of deepening crisis that calls into question the legitimacy of the existing system and, as a result, make the country ever more ungovernable.
The most obvious proof is Lithuania's declaration of independence. The reformers in Moscow were not ready for this challenge, even though it was becoming obvious two years ago that their strategy would result in precisely what they were trying to avoid.
With the collapse of Marxist ideological myths concerning the unity of nations and peoples, a number of Soviet republics began to chafe at their restrictive status. Moscow, having renounced force and repression, finds itself without any effective political and ideological levers to control this restiveness. Perestroika simultaneously brought a delegitimization of ideological, political and institutional structures. Together, these factors have caused a crisis of governance in all important spheres of social activity.
Kremlin leaders, and Gorbachev himself, trying to democratize the regime, did not realize they might paint themselves into a corner. Speaking frequently about the rejection of force to solve social problems and the imminent creation of a just state, Gorbachev and the liberal press reached a dead end--the country came to expect that, henceforth, any questions would be resolved by democratic means.
But no one seemed troubled by an apparent paradox: How could the central authority act with democratic methods, when there were no democratic mechanisms for resolving conflicts and contradictions--and if, in the eyes of society, government structures possessed no legitimacy? How could the central authority act in a democratic manner if society has no democratic infrastructure?
Democracy assumes the presence of competitive institutionalized interests in civil society and legal limits for the resolution of conflict. In effective democracies, this conflict is expressed in politics and is resolved in state institutions chosen by the people and enjoying public legitimacy. However, in a democratic society, in addition to the conflict of interests at a formal level, there exists a societal consensus concerning basic values by which the society functions.
In Soviet society, given the absence of a consensus on basic values and the total discrediting of old values--and given the absence of institutionalized interests that seek constructive interaction--Moscow finds itself in the "trap of democratization." There is no way to control the social processes, because old values and institutions have been totally discredited and new ones arising from perestroika do not yet enjoy legitimacy.
Another essential condition for democratic action is absent: Functioning democracy solves its internal problems not only by political means, but also by force--when actions by individuals or groups threaten the constitutional order, life, safety or property of its citizens. In such cases the democratic state expects popular support, giving legitimacy to acts of force.
Without that support, Gorbachev finds himself trapped, afraid to apply force even in those cases when any democratic state would act without hesitation. Since the central authority does not enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of the people, Gorbachev cannot employ force appropriately or in anticipation, afraid that he might be accused of a return to Stalinism.
A presidential system, approved by a special conference of People's Deputies last month, will indeed strengthen Gorbachev's power and de jure strengthen his independence from the old centers of power in the Politburo and the Central Committee and enable him to transfer power to the newly established bodies. Article 6, which gave primacy to the Communist Party, was removed from the Soviet constitution.
But I doubt that having the Congress of Soviets vote Gorbachev into office will provide him with a base firm enough for legitimacy and presidential power in the eyes of society. Last year has shown that the Congress and the Supreme Soviet themselves are beginning to lose authority. Their decisions have been ignored many times by republics in the Trans-Caucasus and the Baltic region, and there have been violations of the law on labor disputes issued by the Supreme Soviet during the miners' strikes.
To legitimize power, Gorbachev needs to become president by means of general, direct and multicandidate elections. But that takes time, and there is no time to wait for decisions vitally needed to advance modernization.