Forced out of office and deliberately humiliated, Mikhail Gorbachev nevertheless left the historical stage with the dignity of an actor who was aware of the crucial part he had played. In his final address to the Soviet people on Christmas Eve, he justified perestroika on the ground that when he took over, the Soviet people could not go on living as they had: “Everything had to be altered radically” both on the home front and in foreign policy. But he did not try to explain why he ultimately failed, why he ended up putting his divided country on the road to capitalism after setting out with the clear purpose of leading it, united, to some form of democratic socialism. If he intends to tackle this issue in the memoirs he now has the leisure to write, he may well draw a lesson from the farewell tributes paid to him by Bush, Thatcher and company. The Western leaders who hailed him when he surrendered had failed to help him economically when it really mattered, because they still mistrusted his conversion to capitalism.
With Boris Yeltsin, the sincerity of his conversion is not the issue. The question is whether he can deliver. There was never any doubt about his ruthless capacity to bulldoze his way to the top. This apparatchik turned born-again capitalist, the scourge of privilege converted to preacher of profit, was not burdened by principles in his climb. In the last phase of his battle against Gorbachev, when Russia stripped away the remaining prerogatives and properties of the Soviet Union, leaving its president naked, Yeltsin played by his own rules–establish facts first and worry about legal justifications later.
The snag is that what is useful on the way to the top may be awkward once you get there. The breakup of the Soviet Union suited Yeltsin’s plan, but will Moscow now be able to bully Ukraine or Kazakhstan into line, notably to accept a unified military command? The real difficulty, however, is economic. It was one thing to put the blame for the economic disaster on Gorbachev and a central government allegedly not bold enough to follow the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund. It is quite another to apply those recommendations–which will mean a dramatic rise in prices, a drastic drop in living standards and a sharp increase in unemployment–with the scapegoat gone.
Contrary to current belief, it took years for Gorbachev to lose the bulk of his popularity at home. It may be a matter of months for his successor. Will he go down as Boris the Brief, swiftly swept aside by a wave of popular discontent? Or will he be known as Boris the Terrible because of the measures he could impose to break popular resistance? Judging by the steps he’s taken during this period of transition–the promise nearly to double the pay of Russian soldiers and the attempt to revive a mighty Ministry of the Interior–he may well try (unlike Gorbachev) to cling to power by hook and by crook.
Yet the question of Yeltsin’s ultimate fate aside, it has become increasingly clear that while the old regimes could be brought down throughout Eastern Europe with the help of a popular movement, capitalism cannot be introduced in that area by genuinely democratic means. As this idea is being confirmed, the hypocrisy of our establishments–so fond in the past of democracy and of movement from below, provided they occurred beyond the Elbe-will be revealed. And what if it was not freedom and the rule of law that were always at stake but profits and the forms of ownership? Could Orwell have imagined that the heir to Big Brother in that part of the world, though let us hope a provisional one, would be the International Monetary Fund?