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Gorbachev Gestures: Signal of Fresh Commitment to Change

International Herald Tribune,
By Serge Schnemann
May 23, 1991
New York Times Service

MOSCOW - After a bitter winter of estrangement from his comrades in changing Soviet society, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has signaled a readiness to come in from the cold.

In a series of gestures since his meeting with Boris N. Yeltsin, the head of the Russian Republic, and leaders of eight other republics last month, the Soviet president has reached out anew to liberal advocates of change at home and Western leaders abroad.

Sitting Tuesday in the same hall with Mr. Yeltsin at a tribute to Andrei D. Sakharov, the former dissident leader now hallowed in the Soviet Union as a prophet of democracy, Mr. Gorbachev seemed once again among his own - or at least almost.

A day earlier, the Supreme Soviet had finally approved a law giving citizens the right to emigrate and travel abroad freely.

Before that, Mr. Gorbachev had held amicable talks with President George Bush, and the Kremlin had softened its stance on arms controls. Several former associates had rejoined his team, and the tone of official pronouncements had become markedly softer.

The most auspicious of the new developments was Mr. Gorbachev's endorsement of an effort by Grigori A. Yavlinski, considered by many to be the most creative of the liberal economists shunted aside last fall, to launch a joint program of action with major Western governments to put the Soviet Union firmly on a track toward democracy and free enterprise.

Mr. Yavlinski, 39, encamped with a team of eight young associates at Harvard University this week to draft a program that he hopes Mr. Bush and Gorbachev will approve and present to the Group of Seven industrialized democracies at their summit meeting in London in July.

In a conversation on the eve of his departure, Mr. Yavlinski said he had been meeting almost daily with Mr. Gorbachev and his aides in recent weeks to discuss both the approach to the West and a plan for domestic political action drafted by Mr. Yavlinski's research center.

Mr. Yavlinski had been the prime architect of the "500 days" program of radical change that Mr. Gorbachev rejected in the fall, marking the beginning of Mr. Gorbachev's shift to the political right and an attempt by embattled Communist institutions to "come out of the trenches."

In intervening months, Mr. Yavlinski served as an adviser to Mr. Yeltsin and Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan, and he advised both to seek the reconciliation that took place at the Nine-plus-One conference, as the conciliatory meeting between Mr. Gorbachev and the presidents of nine of the 15 republics has come to be known.

Asked why Mr. Gorbachev was now listening to him, Mr. Yavlinski replied: "Because I'm giving him a program. I don't give him answers. What I offer is a logical plan of action."

Mr. Yavlinski insisted that money was not the critical issue.

"The question of money in this program plays an important, but not the major role," he wrote in the government daily lzvestia. "Everything will be determined by the logic of the transformation. The money will fulfill the function of a shock absorber of social costs and shocks."

For Mr. Yavlinski, the real goal was to make the West an active partner in reintegrating the Soviet Union into the global economy and community.

Nonetheless, money was most likely to be the sticking point among the Western powers, however sympathetic they might be to the greater goal. With the United States in recession, Germany facing huge bills for its new east, and bills from the Gulf war still coming in, the notion of pumping billions into the Soviet Union met with little enthusiasm.

Yet, in Moscow, at least, there was a sense that things had reached a fateful point, that something had to give. It was perhaps this foreboding, more than any single event, that prompted Mr. Gorbachev to resume the course on which he originally set out six years ago.

Western visitors to Moscow often suspect that grand political strategies govern the maneuvers of the major players, that ambitions and fixed goals shape the political conflicts and pacts. From within, however, the impression is increasingly that events are being guided by improvisation, by desperation.

According to people who were close to him at the time, Mr. Gorbachev rejected the "500 day" plan largely because he did not believe that such radical medicine was inescapable.

A master politician and compromiser, he was convinced that some balance could be struck between the free market of the advocates of change and the social welfare of the Communists.

In the ensuing months, however, the economy and the society slipped inexorably toward disaster. The very levers of control slid from the hand of the government as republics ceased sending their levies, as miners walked off the job, as republics asserted their sovereignty.

The economy lumbered on through sheer inertia even as the ruble lost its meaning. Attempts to maintain control through force proved disastrous as the bloodshed in Lithuania brought down the wrath of the world.

Misguided attempts at economic change, in the absence of any popular support, only brought ridicule down on the new prime minister, Valentin S. Pavlov.

Mr. Gorbachev came under assault from both left and right. Mr. Yeltsin joined coal miners in demanding his resignation for stalling on change, while the right wing demanded his hide for failing to crack down.

The event that seemed to drive home the crisis was the Kremlin's attempt to block a rally of democrats by sending 50,000 troops into the streets of Moscow. This was no national uprising, no tribal clash, but young conscripts confronting their neighbors. For both the "democrats" and the "center," it was a glimpse of the abyss that lay ahead.

The retreat by both sides that followed seemed to bring a tangible sigh of relief. Siberian coal mines were transferred to Russia's jurisdiction and resumed work. The sniping at Mr. Gorbachev dropped off. Most republican leaders signed on to economic changes.

To Mr. Yavlinski, the conditions seemed right at last to undertake what he firmly believed was the only path to salvation, a joint effort with the West to guide the Soviet Union back into the fold.

"We must note that conditions conducive to cooperation and large-scale programs, both within our country and abroad, arise infrequently," he wrote. "Do we have the right to let slip a moment in which action could begin?"