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  • Pressing for Democracy in the USSR
  • Ilya Zaslavsky (bio)

As the entire world knows, the Soviet Union now has perestroika, democracy, and, of course, the world's most popular political leader who started it all—Mikhail Gorbachev. About Mikhail Gorbachev and the reforms he launched five years ago, there can be no disagreement. It is an indisputable fact that before we lived in one kind of society, and now we are trying to create another. Only one question remains: Are we creating a democracy, or is it something else?

The whole world believes it is a democracy. And indeed, we have chosen a parliament, and all sorts of people are arguing there, expressing a wide—sometimes even too wide—variety of opinions, voting on [End Page 123] various proposals, passing resolutions by a majority of votes. It is true that, as a rule, this parliament approves either proposals handed down from above—from the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, from the government, from Gorbachev himself—or slightly edited versions thereof. But that cannot be helped. If these laws have been passed by the majority, then it is democracy.

But . . . we should ask ourselves a question. How was this majority formed? It is well known that during the 1989 elections to the Congress of People's Deputies of the USSR, the winning candidates in some districts ran unopposed, which reveals something of a flaw in our democracy. It is also well known that one-third of the deputies in the Soviet parliament were chosen by the executive bodies of public organizations (and not such all organizations, but only some of them). This too has been seen as a distortion of our democracy. Finally, there was still another distortion in our electoral process: in 1989 there were special preelection meetings where a few hundred people, chosen in a rather arbitrary way and certainly not representing the opinions of all the voters in the district, decided which candidates should stay on the list and which should be stricken from it.

But even that is not the end of it. For there were two more major flaws in our parliamentary elections. First, in many districts where there were two or more candidates, they all represented one and the same platform, that of the Communist Party (CPSU). In other words, the only choice available was between personalities, not ideas. Thus all votes were effectively cast for the same program, that of the Central Committee of the CPSU.

Second, even in districts where there was a competition of ideas, the candidates who followed the Central Committee line enjoyed enormous advantages. Such "correct" candidates were supplied with whole brigades of campaigners and copying machines, and were given access to the press. They also benefited from the support of Communist organizations at various enterprises and of the so-called "Soviet veterans"—persons retired from official positions who, as a rule, unquestioningly support Communist Party policy.

For all these reasons, the debates between the minority and the majority at the sessions of the Congress of People's Deputies and the Supreme Soviet of the USSR are not in the same category as the traditional debates in Western parliamentary systems between a democratically elected majority and a democratically elected minority. It would be more accurate, in our case, to speak of debates between an undemocratically elected majority and a democratically elected minority—though of course there are exceptions on each side. For instance, People's Deputies Andrei Sakharov and Gavriil Popov, though they joined the democratic minority, were elected not by popular vote but by a public organization, the USSR Academy of Sciences. [End Page 124]

These exceptions notwithstanding, the rule is this: the passage of resolutions in our esteemed parliament is democratic in form rather than in substance. The balance of forces in the legislative body is not the same as in the population. This can be easily ascertained by comparing the results of several parliamentary votes on key issues with the results of public opinion polls.

The determination of the conservative parliamentary majority to keep Article 6 [guaranteeing the Communist Party's monopoly on power] in the Soviet Constitution for at least a while longer seemed especially defiant...


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