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Balancing Act

new internationalist
issue 190 - December 1988

Balancing act
Our view of Soviet political life is one of officially sanctioned uniformity expressed in the wooden language of Pravda. Clashing interests and profound differences of opinion have been restricted to a few daring plays, outrageous rock lyrics or bitter jokes. But in these heady days of reform, Soviet politics has burst out into the open. Gorbachev and the new guard in the Kremlin must perform a creative balancing act if their view of glasnost is to prevail. The stakes are high - the meaning of democracy in a socialist society.
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Illustrations: Alan Hughes
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DEMONSTRATIONS in Armenia, riots in. Alma Ata, protests from the Baltic republics - the lid is off the Pandora's box of nationalist grievances in the USSR. Charges of Russian chauvinism and long simmering ethnic complaints on the familiar themes of borders and language are bursting into the open. Keeping together the world's biggest multi-national state will call for all the fairness and tact the present leadership can muster.

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The privileges of the bureaucratic ruling class are well established in the USSR and will not be surrendered easily. From the big economic ministries in Moscow to the local party despot in a Siberian mining town, resistance to Glasnost is growing. For many of these bureaucrats it is enough to do nothing in order for the old habits of arbitrary power to remain in place.

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According to Gorbachev the Soviet Union 'needs democracy like it needs air'. But democracy is a messy and unpredictable business with people organising their own political groups and trade unions that are likely to make demands not acceptable to the present leadership. It is difficult to see how a vital democracy and one-party rule can co-exist.

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TIME and Newsweek may approve of glasnost but the conservative planners that haunt the halls of the strategic think-tanks in Washington and London aren't so sure. They have not surrendered their cherished dream of driving the Soviet economy into the ground through a crippling level of military spending. Or perhaps involving the Soviets in foreign adventures by a strategy of support for low-intensity warfare in the Third World. The Cold War game of ringing the alarm bells of national security has proved a lucrative business for conservatives on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

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THE new reforms will rise or fall on whether they can deliver the economic goods. Enthusiastic support will falter as the grumbling from the queue in front of the butcher shop grows louder. Perestroika must at least make the wait shorter or more worthwhile. Market reforms may help. But with the military defending its multi-billion-rouble budget and bureaucrats their prestige and pet projects, it is hard to imagine there will be enough to satisfy everyone.

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WORKERS everywhere are used to being preached to about working harder - usually by those who don't. And the Soviet Union is no different. But a steady diet of capitalist-style pay cuts, lay-offs, and speed-ups to increase economic efficiency will not be met with thundering applause from the factories. Workers must be convinced that their lives will improve. They must have more control over what they produce and how they produce it.

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AS always in the secretive Kremlin the differences at the top remain the subject of endless speculation. But it is common knowledge that they exist - Yegor Ligachev is generally seen as the potential leader of a conservative opposition to Gorbachev in the all-powerful Politburo. Without any established pattern of succession a palace coup is always a possibility if the reforms run out of steam.


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New Internationalist issue 190 magazine cover This article is from the December 1988 issue of New Internationalist.
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