Article 18
October 13, 1988



September 1988 Central Committee meeting admits economic reforms are bogged down, national struggles becoming sharper. No open political debate. Instead, shifts in top Party personnel. Gorbachev moves toward decollectivizing farms through contract work and long-term leases to land. Ligachev's role as head of agriculture. Need for open voting on resolutions. Neglect of national question. Soviet of Nationalities not consulted on Armenia and Azerbaijan. National question becomes political football to attack "conservatives."

When the Central Committee of the Communist Party met for its fall session in late September 1988, it was faced with two truly staggering issues. One was how to proceed or possibly even whether to proceed with the Gorbachev economic reforms. As Gorbachev himself admitted in a speech to Soviet editors,1 the reforms are going slowly and in effect have stopped. "We are going slowly, we are losing time, this means we are losing the game. In a word, it turns out there is a gap between our goals and our work," he said. Viewing this prognosis in light of his October 15, 1985, report to the Central Committee, one cannot help but feel a sense of disappointment. He said at that time:

It is planned in the next fifteen years to create an economic potential approximately equal in scale to that accumulated throughout all the previous years of Soviet government and to almost double national income and industrial output. Productivity of labor is to go up by 130-150 percent.

This will help double the volume of resources for meeting the requirements of the people. I think that the document being presented gives us every ground for saying that the implementation of its social program will make it possible, in the next three five-year plan periods, to raise the Soviet people's standard of living to a qualitatively new level.2

Now, in September 1988, this grandiose panorama of what would happen over the next 15 years must be scaled down.

By contrast, it is sure to be pointed out by some in the Central Committee that after the Soviet Union inaugurated the first Five-Year Plan, it took on such momentum that Stalin could assert the completion of the plan in four years. A comparison is surely being made in some of the leading circles of the USSR between pyatiletka (the name given the first Five-Year Plan) and perestroika. There are, of course, vast differences. They reflect two different epochs. The historical circumstances are altogether different. But both do involve technological as well as social and economic changes.

The other critical question is the nationality issue. It has become more and more urgent as unrest and disorders have accelerated. No sooner had the Central Committee adjourned than once again the Baltic situation took on an ominous character with larger and more defiant demonstrations in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

These were the two issues that should have been dealt with. However, in the true spirit of a classic centrist, Gorbachev decided to shelve them and deal first with personnel changes. While they undoubtedly are urgent, and it is proper for the Central Committee to deal with them, under the circumstances it is really putting the cart before the horse.

Usually the Party Congress elects the Central Committee, which then elects its executive committee (Politburo) and the other leading bodies. The form of the election can vary, but the Party Congress is the highest body. It would be in the tradition of Leninist democratic centralism for the Central Committee to first discuss the broad political issues, based on debate over the various resolutions, followed by voting for and against them. Then the last item on the agenda, as was done at Congresses during the Leninist period, would be to deal with the election of a new Politburo and its leadership. At the end it is possible to have a consensus even where there are serious differences of opinion. But these should be clearly stated without fear or favor.

However, the old pattern of endless unanimous resolutions adopted without discernible differences (except those that are detected by reading between the lines or careful followup of the speeches and activities of the leadership) is still being followed, notwithstanding the standard denunciations of conservatism and stagnation--allusions to the Stalin and Brezhnev periods. This must now be recognized following the 19th Party Conference3 as well as the recent plenum of the Central Committee.4

The bourgeois press was of course filled with speculation and inside dope on the meaning of the personnel changes. Unquestionably some of the media here have either direct or indirect access to explanations for the changes. One reported change in the structure of the Central Committee was to replace 22 departments with six commissions. Mikhail Gorbachev took Andrei Gromyko's seat as Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, also known as President. Gromyko, along with three others, was dropped from the Politburo. Gromyko has held ranking positions in the Party for 50 years and was foreign minister for 28 of them.

Among the four new Politburo members are Gorbachev proteges Anatoly Lukyanov and Vadim Medvedev. Medvedev skipped over the candidate stage to be made a full member. He will be a Party secretary and will head the commission on ideology, replacing Yegor Ligachev, who previously had responsibility for both ideology and foreign policy. Ligachev will head the commission on agriculture.

Anatoly Dobrynin, who held a position as senior foreign policy adviser to Gorbachev and was the longtime Soviet ambassador to the U.S., was replaced by Aleksandr Yakovlev, who will head the commission on international affairs. Yakovlev is considered to be one of Gorbachev's closest collaborators.

The capitalist press has regarded Yegor Ligachev as second in command and the leading "conservative" in the Party. Medvedev, who replaces him, was previously the Party's senior adviser on Eastern Europe and has risen rapidly in the Party ranks since Gorbachev's accession in 1985. Yakovlev, who was put in Dobrynin's place, is regarded as very close to Gorbachev. It was he who gave the press a summary of Gorbachev's report to the 19th Party Conference.

In response to a question from the Associated Press ("When do you think there will be an end to rationing of basic food in the Soviet Union?"), Yakovlev answered:

It is bitter for me to hear and respond to this question because it is true, because this is our illness, this is our sore point. Yes, it is necessary to introduce as soon as possible lease contracting, brigade contracting, agro-firms, agro-combines and all the other things outlined recently in the context of agrarian policy. Yes, it is necessary to solve the food problem as soon as possible. It is a political question, a moral question. It is a social question. . . . But the whole point is that it does not matter what we undertake. If there is no hard work and if there is a continuation of the lack of self-reliance that is very widespread among us, then there is very little that we will be able to do. In his report today Mikhail [Gorbachev] spoke very sharply about this in a very committed way. He repeatedly said that it seems it is now necessary to go further in agriculture, especially in the area of management. . . . [F]rom now on a procedure should be established for the collective and state farms to themselves establish who should manage them and how they should be managed and what should be done. . . . That means they will be responsible for everything they do. That is, people's self-interest must be raised further. Of course, without this there will be no foodstuffs, there will be nothing, nothing at all. Second, it is necessary to socially restructure the countryside.5

Thus it is clear that agriculture is the most important and urgent issue. The Gorbachev administration is using the mechanisms of lease contracting, brigade contracting, agro-firms, agro-combines, etc., to move in the direction of encouraging private collectives, widening contract farming and leasing land for something like 50 years. All this points in the direction of the decollectivization of agriculture, which is already very much underway. It is one of the fundamental issues that the reformers and the so-called conservatives are at loggerheads over.

The issue is whether to retain and strengthen the collectivization of agriculture and put it on a higher socialist level, the level of an industry, or to go backward toward bourgeois relations in agriculture, as for example in Poland and for the most part now in China, with all its dire consequences. The stated objective of the reformers is to raise the productivity of labor, increase the food supply and make the country less dependent on the import of grain and other farm products. Of course, nothing is more urgent than the food supply. But the issue is whether to go on with the bourgeois reforms in the agricultural field, or to find ways and means of strengthening agriculture and increasing the productivity of labor on the basis of advancing socialist relations on the land and bringing them to a higher stage of development. It's an issue of principle. It certainly is a contradictory road; it's either one or the other.

Therefore, if the Party's position is to go in the direction of decollectivization and the bourgeois market, it would be wrong in principle for anyone in favor of deepening socialist norms to be put in the position of taking responsibility for the agriculture ministry.

It's the same in a trade union situation. If a strike is in progress and there's a difference of opinion over whether to terminate or continue it, it would be wrong for the local union executive board or president to appoint someone to take responsibility for terminating the strike whose conviction is in the direction of continuing it.

It is wrong for Ligachev to have taken the post of agriculture minister at this time if he is in favor of intensifying socialist agriculture but has to carry out an opposite policy. If he was arbitrarily removed from his other responsibilities and put into this new position, and is doing it as a matter of Party discipline, it's doubly erroneous. He shouldn't accept the post if the policy is at odds with his political convictions, and it is wrong for Gorbachev to appoint him to it. Of course, it is conceivable to do it as a matter of loyalty to the Party, but that is hardly a way to deal with such a critical issue as agriculture.

The root of the problem lies first of all in the fact that the Central Committee meeting wasn't confronted with voting up and down on resolutions which would politically explain the divergent positions of the groupings around this crucial issue. This democratic procedure, which was so scrupulously followed during the Leninist period, was subsequently abandoned in the Stalin era and has not been revived by his successors, including the Gorbachev regime. There is never any open voting on resolutions up and down the line.

In a country with a hundred nationalities covering almost 280 million people, how is it possible to always come out with unanimous votes on issues which subsequently are shown to be in dispute? Could this happen if the restructuring processes were really being reviewed and resolutions on them discussed and voted on without fear, the way it used to be during the Leninist era and the way it should be in any revolutionary working class party where genuine issues are in dispute? As matters stand now, real disputes are hidden and have to manifest themselves in other ways, often in the foreign press. So that however the restructuring issue was discussed in the Central Committee meeting, this is not made available to the public. Yes, it is now more democratic than it has been, but a gulf still separates it from the Leninist era.

The bourgeois press, which showed such extravagant admiration for the Gorbachev reforms and was so effusive in its praise of the 19th Party Conference deliberations, has become more cautious of late. They hailed Gorbachev for consolidating power in his hands by becoming the chairman (president) of the Presidium, but were quick to exploit the hasty approval he got from the Central Committee, characterizing it as a break from his own policy of democratization.

The other issue, the nationality question as it is called in the USSR, was again shelved. It is a real question as to which was more critical--the economic restructuring plan or the growing unrest among the nationalities. It is well to bear in mind the structure of the Soviet state as reflected in the Constitution of the USSR. We have more than once called attention to the fact that the USSR state structure is composed of two chambers. This is a unique feature of the Soviet system. No capitalist country has such a structure.

The purpose of the two chambers is to give the greatest emphasis to the struggle for equality of all the peoples of the USSR. Any issue that deeply concerns the nationalities--such as the struggles in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, etc.--should be at least discussed in the Soviet of the Nationalities. If it is not discussed there, then this chamber is a dead letter and has no meaning.

In fact, one could easily be led to that conclusion by the fact that it is so rarely mentioned. And the capitalist press, which usually looks in every nook and corner to find some avenue to discredit the USSR, has conspicuously stayed away from pointing this out, precisely because it would point up the gross racism and national discrimination against oppressed peoples which exists in the bourgeois world, where such a body has never existed, not even in form.

It should be noted that the national question, which anyone can now see is a critical issue in the USSR, has been given scarce attention by the Gorbachev administration, which aroused such high expectations of democratization. Mention of it in Gorbachev's report to the 27th Congress could easily be overlooked and succeeding reports barely noted it. It took the outbreak of the demonstrations in Armenia and Azerbaijan to finally compel the government to deal with it and the press to report it. The unrest and disorders forced the June 1988 meeting of the Central Committee to discuss it extensively. One would think that, immediately after the outbreak of disorders involving at least three of the nationalities, this would be discussed in the chamber for which it was erected--the Soviet of Nationalities. But it hasn't been to this date, though it is still not too late to do so.

The constitution categorically states that the territory of a union republic cannot be altered without its consent and that the borders of union republics can only be altered by mutual agreement of the corresponding republics and approval by the USSR. This has been affirmed repeatedly in the constitutions of 1924, 1936 and 1977 (the present one). A speech by Gorbachev to the USSR Supreme Soviet Presidium in the summer of 1988 confirms the existence of the Soviet of Nationalities; it has not been abrogated without public knowledge. He referred to various proposals made for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem and spoke about:

. . . [U]pgrading the status of the region, its powers, and possibilities. This, apparently, should not be rejected. These matters need to be solved. We consulted with leaders of the republic [Azerbaijan]. Perhaps the resolution, alongside what was said in the first part, should contain a provision that a group or a commission be formed in the framework of the Soviet of Nationalities to analyze all the proposals made here. Later, apparently, other proposals will also be made in the Soviet of Nationalities, so that we will thus be able to study this problem better, the more so as we approach a reform of the political system that presupposes changes, enhancing the rights of union republics, their responsibilities and powers, the widening of the rights and status of the autonomous republics. Solutions enhancing the guarantees mentioned here could be arrived at in the framework of studying this entire matter.6

So finally, two years after the rebellions in Kazakhstan, after months of struggle in Armenia and Azerbaijan and the defiant demonstrations in the Baltic areas, we learn of the existence of the Soviet of Nationalities and that a group will be formed (how and who will be on it is not mentioned) which will analyze proposals. But all this awaits political changes that will presumably widen the rights and status of the autonomous republics and "enhance the guarantees."

But the guarantees are already embodied in the constitution. What is required is for the other arm of the Soviet government, the Soviet of Nationalities, to meet and discuss, to propose or dispose. When will it meet? There is only a rumor that it will meet sometime next year.

It serves no useful purpose, and will in the long run prove extremely harmful not only for Gorbachev and his administration but for the cause of socialism in the USSR, for him to blame the nationality problems on the conservatives, as he did in his speech to the Presidium.

It is the adversaries of restructuring, conservative and corrupt elements who waxed rich in the period of stagnation that speculate on the problems of Nagorno-Karabakh. We, comrades, should not fail to see and realize this. It is of advantage to them to distract the attention from themselves by feigning concern for the destiny of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. We know this, we see this, and we shall not lose sight of this. The force of Soviet laws should be directed precisely and only against such elements.7

This doesn't explain why the disorders took place during his administration and not earlier. Nor does it explain why he didn't raise the question of the nationalities where it properly belongs, in the Soviet of Nationalities. Indeed, he goes on in his speech to refer to this problem as not only critical and important but as "arch-important" and an "arch-complex matter." If that is so, why not take it up in the forum where it belongs?

A speaker identified only as Pogosyan, the first secretary of the Nagorno-Karabakh Oblispolkom of Azerbaijan, raised the ghost of Stalin at the Supreme Soviet summer session when he said, "How then did Nagorno-Karabakh find itself a part of the Azerbaijan SSR? Unfortunately that was a concession to the annexationist ambitions of the then leadership of Azerbaijan which, enjoying Stalin's support and skillfully speculating on the extremely complex situation in the Transcaucasus and Russia as a whole, achieved the incorporation into the Azerbaijan SSR of a territory where more than 94 percent of the inhabitants were Armenians." 8 But this approach did no good and is strongly disputed by the Azerbaijanis.

How do they explain the silence on this matter of the two outstanding liberalizers who initiated the anti-Stalin struggle? Nikita Khrushchev and Anastas Mikoyan never seemed to have noticed the injustice to the Armenians on the specific issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, even though Mikoyan, an Armenian, and Khrushchev, a Ukrainian, were themselves from formerly oppressed nationalities. Mikoyan was a long-time member of the Central Committee and Politburo, a close associate of Khrushchev, president of the Supreme Soviet and the very first one to have attacked Stalin after his death.

The roots of the matter go way back to the beginning of the USSR and to the last days of Lenin's life. He warned against Great Russian chauvinism as the principal danger in the nationalities problem in the USSR.9 Then, as now, economic reforms which revived the capitalist market also stimulated and exacerbated the growth of national animosities, as we have pointed out earlier. Basically an appeal to bourgeois individual inclinations, the reforms today are generating bourgeois nationalism in inter-ethnic matters as well as in relations between the center and the union republics.


1. Pravda, September 25, 1988, as reported in the New York Times of September 26, 1988.

2. Mikhail Gorbachev, "We Speak Openly About Our Policy Objectives," Documents of the CPSU Central Committee Plenary Meeting, October 15, 1985 (Moscow: Novosti Press Agency Publishing House, 1985), p. 20.

3. June-July 1988.

4. September 30, 1988.

5. Moscow Domestic Service recorded and translated by Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Washington, June 29, 1988.

6. Speech by Mikhail Gorbachev to the USSR Supreme Soviet on July 18, 1988. In Foreign Broadcast Information Service of July 21, 1988, p. 33.

7. Ibid.

8. Foreign Broadcast Information Service, July 21, 1988, pp. 37-38.

9. See V.I. Lenin, "The Question of Nationalities or `Autonomization,' " Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966), Vol. 36, pp. 605-611.

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