Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has made his peace--at least for now--with his longtime political rival Boris Yeltsin, the newly elected populist president of the vast Russian Federation and today a welcome visitor in Washington. But having temporarily secured his left flank against attack from impatient reformers, Gorbachev must again contend with mutinous rumblings on the right. Before Parliament this week his prime minister, Valentin S. Pavlov, did his best to sabotage Gorbachev's efforts to obtain the Western aid critically needed to stave off national economic collapse.
Pavlov turned his guns on the proposals for economic reform that have been drafted by an unofficial but influential group of Soviet and American economists working at Harvard. Those ideas, the details of which have not yet been published, are usually described as radical. Overall, they aim at the decentralization and privatization of the Soviet economy, to be accompanied in an unacknowledged quid pro quo by significant infusions of cash, credits and investments from the major industrial nations.
DISASTER FORMULA: Cheered on by like-minded conservatives in the Supreme Soviet, Pavlov scoffed at the notion that the United States and other potential donors would respond generously to Soviet needs. More to the point, he again rejected the concept of instituting rapid economic reforms, arguing instead for a cautious approach that would continue to rely heavily on central planning. At the same time he appealed for sweeping powers to enable the government to rule by decree. The effect of granting such authority would be to diminish the powers of the largely elected legislature while pumping new energy into the failed and discredited mechanism of the planned economy. Both democratization and serious efforts toward restructuring would be the losers.
Pavlov acknowledged that he had not discussed his call for special powers with Gorbachev, and it seems highly unlikely that the Soviet president could approve of his prime minister's cavalier dismissal of prospects of getting help from the West. A month from now Gorbachev will be in London, at his own request, to lobby the leaders of the seven major industrialized states--the G-7--for extensive help. Any aid given seems sure to be tied, as it must be, to rapid Soviet progress in moving toward a market economy. That is what Pavlov and others in the Communist Party hierarchy oppose and fear, partly because they think that conditional aid is demeaning but mainly because a serious program of reform would inevitably sweep aside all those whose long rule has brought the Soviet Union to the edge of ruin.
PAVLOVIAN REACTION: This isn't the first time Gorbachev has been embarrassed by certain "Pavlovian" responses. In February, the prime minister tried to justify the unpopular decree removing large-denomination notes from circulation by spinning a wacky conspiracy theory involving a foiled economic coup engineered by foreign and Russian banks. But it's the timing of Pavlov's latest blast that is noteworthy.
Its call for reinforced centralization came on the same day that Gorbachev and the leaders of seven of the country's republics agreed on the draft of a new union treaty, under which substantial powers would be shifted from Moscow to the republics. It came just a week after the largest free election in Soviet history chose as Russia's president the most anti-communist candidate in the race. And it came as that new president, Boris Yeltsin, arrived in the United States to press the case for more rapid change in his homeland. So the familiar question recurs: Who speaks for the Soviet Union and its plans for the future? Before they consider making the kind of economic commitments that Gorbachev seeks, the G-7 leaders had better be sure they have an answer they can believe in.