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  • The USSR's Protracted Crisis
  • Sergei Stankevich (bio)

The success of the so-called "velvet revolutions" that transformed Czechoslovakia and East Germany in 1989 cannot be repeated in the Soviet Union. Some of my fellow democrats continue to hope that by stepping up the pressure from below on the Soviet regime and stimulating mass participation in direct protests, they can make possible the accession to power of a fully democratic government in our country. My own view, however, is that this romantic scenario has been impractical from the very beginning.

Totalitarianism has put down deep roots in our society: in the minds of key members of the elder generations, in vital institutions, and in economic structures. It cannot be removed in a single stroke. Democratic [End Page 55] forces in the Soviet Union must steel themselves for a long period of uneasy transition. During this period we will have no choice but to accept the coexistence of hardly compatible persons, ideas, and institutions. The situation in the republics of the Soviet Union now is extreme. The spread and continuation of massive strikes have driven the economy to the brink of real catastrophe. In the wake of the recent drastic price hikes, public confidence in the government has dropped to almost zero.

It is not easy just now to say who holds power in the Soviet Union. I would say that there is currently no power at all in the country. What we have instead is several competing centers of influence. President Mikhail Gorbachev and his circle form one of the strongest of these, with control over such key state instruments as the army, the KGB, and the police. The other centers of influence are the governments of the republics and the main political forces and movements. For the moment, the upshot of all our recent political developments is the rather complex and unstable process of interaction that is now going on among these competing centers of influence. But there is no single power capable of shaping it all. One cannot sense a particular governing impulse that is capable of reaching all those who are addressed and being carried into action. Such a vacuum of power makes for a tremendously dangerous situation. No matter what the central government proposes now, nothing can be accepted with trust.

Any serious attempt to ameliorate this state of affairs should include two things: minimum stabilization, and a coalition government of confidence. Stabilization, which is the primary need, became the key word in our political vocabulary only recently. Most observers foresee two options in connection with stabilization—stabilization by force or political stabilization. The former is a real possibility in our country, where many Communist leaders now speak of General Pinochet with great sympathy. I am quite certain, however, that any attempt at stabilization by force will not endure for more than a few months, and will not be able to bring about any alleviation of our country's economic plight.

The only real option is political stabilization, but it faces two principal obstacles. One is the absence of a political middle ground. Instead of a center, we have two extremes: Communist fundamentalists, and radical democrats. The absence of a dialogue in the center is, I think, the main obstacle to real political stabilization. A second serious obstacle is the absence of inter-republic reconciliation. The four key republics of Ukraine, Russia, Byelorussia, and Kazakhstan should take immediate steps to recognize one another's sovereignty and negotiate the terms on which they can coexist in some form of union. I am absolutely sure that we still need some form of union between these four republics at least, but it must be our republics' free choice that decides the form of this [End Page 56] union and the terms of mutual cooperation. If the republics remain isolated one from another, it will be very difficult to guarantee the irreversibility of democratic reforms in each of them, and the restoration of the old regime will be a much more serious threat.

Unlike many of my radical colleagues in the Soviet Union and in Moscow, I am not calling for a final decisive assault upon the system, with death...