Saturday October 16, 2021

Soviet memories (Part - V)

September 12, 2021

In early 1988, when I was back in Moscow from Odessa, Ukraine, Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo visited the Soviet capital. Ajmal Khattak was already there. Both were curious to know from Pakistani students in Moscow about what was happening in the country that they had cherished.

Ajmal Khattak had not been to Pakistan for long and spent a large part of the 1980s in Afghanistan or the USSR. He was friends with members and leaders of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The Dr Najibullah-led government in Afghanistan was in a similar position as that of Hamid Karzai’s or Ashraf Ghani’s in the 21st century. The difference was that Dr Najibullah was a genuine leader with impeccable credentials as a true friend of his people in Afghanistan. When Pakistani students met Khattak and Bizenjo in Moscow in January 1988, the two leftist leaders had different approaches to the changes taking place in the Soviet Union.

Ajmal Khattak was a staunch defender of the Soviet Communist Party and its policies whereas Mir Bizenjo had a more balanced perspective. When we told them about the confusion prevailing across the country, Khattak was all praise for the communist party and did not think that the party had done anything wrong. Bizenjo had more questions for us and kept throwing incisive queries about the reform programme. Bizenjo informed us that Left and progressive politics in Pakistan was in a shambles because of its inability to understand the criticism hurled at the communist party in the Soviet Union.

Bizenjo explained that he had reservations about the way the Soviet party system worked, and that during his contacts with the Soviet Union – even before Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power – it was evident that the party had lost touch with the people and did not enjoy the support of the people and the working class it claimed to be the sole representative of. Ajmal Khattak did not agree with him and kept defending the party and its policies as most appropriate ones at all times. Khattak was stuck in time, Bizenjo wasn’t.

It was in Moscow that Khattak and Bizenjo came to know about the demise of Bacha Khan and had to rush back for his funeral in Kabul. The first half of 1988 in Moscow was focused mostly on the preparations for the 19th All-Union Conference of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which was held in the last week of June. Normally, for such gatherings, a thesis, which was called the central committee thesis, had to be written. In his keynote address to the conference, Gorbachev again touched upon the question of state democratisation and the need for radically reforming the political system.

Gorbachev wanted the party to overcome deformations in its activities such as the bureaucratic leadership style of administration. Again criticism, discussion, and openness were his guiding principles. But, perhaps, the most important point was his repeated stress on multicandidate, competitive elections for all committees in the party. It also meant that the party first secretaries will contest the election of the soviet (assembly). Previously, the party first secretary would become ex-officio leader of the republic, and Gorbachev wanted to change that. Now, the party leaders had to go through an election process.

Since the assembly could contain non-party members, the fate of the party leaders became uncertain. The Muscovites, who were mostly educated and politically conscious, realised this contradiction in Gorbachev’s approach; on one side, he was advocating a clear demarcation between the communist party and the state, and withdrawal of the party from day-to-day management of the economy, and on the other, he was suggesting that the party leader should contest the election to become the administrative head. That’s how Gorbachev attempted to remove the party’s monopoly in the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev also proposed a new national legislative structure by restoring the full authority of the soviets of people’s deputies (assembly members) and creating a new Congress of People’s Deputies to be convened annually. The Congress would elect from among its members a smaller Supreme Soviet as a standing body for legislation and monitoring. Gorbachev wanted to strengthen his own position by creating a new executive presidency. The conference witnessed sharp attacks on party leadership and lively debates that changed the political culture of the Soviet Union at the top.

Boris Yeltsin who had been removed from his post as the Moscow party chief in 1987, appealed in the Party Conference in June 1988 for his rehabilitation, but was rejected. The party old guard Yegor Ligachyov and the reformer, Yeltsin, clashed severely. This rejection hurt Yeltsin so much that he turned against Gorbachev and the party. Since the course of the conference was broadcast nationally on Soviet TV, the party’s image in Soviet homes altered. For the first time, people saw the party as divided and fractured in which the party chief had to face sharp criticism. This had a radicalising effect.

Now the central committee of the party was to be more involved in the work of the politburo, which earlier worked in isolation and made decisions that the committee was to approve without much discussions and questions. The party apparatus was to be strictly subordinate to elected organs. Gorbachev presented the timetable of the implementation of the conference decisions at the last moment and got it approved in haste. In the latter half of 1988, the conference decisions were implemented with varying degrees of success. By the end of 1988, Gorbachev managed to downgrade Andrei Gromyko, Yegor Ligachyov and Mikhail Solomentsev – all had played an instrumental role in Gorbachev’s elevation to the presidency.

By 1989, in Pakistan, General Ziaul Haq had died, and Benazir Bhutto had become prime minister. I was back in the country; the later memories are a recollection of my readings of Moscow News and other newspapers which were readily available in the Soviet Cultural Centre, in Karachi. I still have a large collection of those papers in my personal library. From 1989 onwards, the honeymoon period of Gorbachev was over as the communist party could no longer control the political situation in the Soviet Union.

The party leadership was now becoming increasingly reactive, finding it hard to keep up with changes which were occurring faster than it could control. There emerged political forces outside the party and a range of groups which challenged the party’s monopoly. There was also a quick mobilisation of ethnic and nationalist forces across the Soviet Union from the Baltics to Caucasia and Central Asia. In March 1989, the elections for the Congress of People’s Deputies (the new assembly) began. Popular involvement in electoral campaign was unprecedented as there was the possibility of choice.

Since it was a nascent democracy, around 85 percent of the delegates elected to the Congress were party members. Many junior or low-level party members contested against senior leaders and won. Some prominent party members across the Soviet Union failed to gain election. Among those defeated were the mayors of Moscow and Kiev; party first secretaries in many big cities and republic capitals, the Latvian prime minister, Lithuanian president and prime minister, dozens of regional and district party chiefs; and the entire party leadership in Leningrad.

There also emerged local nationalist popular fronts throughout the Soviet Union. The most far-reaching was the election in Moscow of the disgraced former politburo candidate member, Boris Yeltsin, who won a crushing victory with nearly 90 percent votes. In Moscow, the rejection of the party was stunning as only four out of 40 senior party leaders could win.

To be continued

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]