The Misha and Boris Show
The good news from the recent summit: Mikhail Gorbachev is a human being. (He pitches horseshoes! He drives a golf cart! He likes George Bush!) The bad news: American reporters still haven't learned that the Soviet president is different from a Western head of state.
Most folks inside the Beltway (in both the government and the media) decided some time ago that Gorbachev was a nice guy and we should do all we could to keep him around. Gorbo fans credit him with a coherent, sweeping vision that would bring the Soviet Union into the 20th century. These pundits and policymakers conveniently forget that early perestroika consisted entirely of hard work and no drinking. But the U.S. plan was to prop Gorby up, no matter the cost.
Of course Gorbachev is an attractive ruler—compared to Brezhnev, Andropov, or Ligachev. If Joe Stalin is your benchmark, then even Khrushchev is a pretty rad dude. But this doesn't make Gorbachev a heroic figure. After all, the man didn't rise to power with a groundswell of popular support. He notably refused to subject either himself or his reforms to popular elections.
And now the emergence of Boris Yeltsin as president of the Russian republic messes up the whole wicket. Aside from a few unhelpful catch phrases in the American press describing Yeltsin ("populist," "radical reformer"), we know little of substance about him. As Moscow Communist Party chief, he manipulated the bureaucracy effectively—the state shops there actually had items on the shelves. He publicly ridiculed the opulent lifestyle of high-ranking party honchos while refusing to accept any perks himself. He even kissed babies. This record makes a great campaign commercial, but it doesn't constitute an agenda for reform.
Since Yeltsin's election, he has openly challenged Gorbachev's power by drafting a proclamation making the laws in the Russian republic supersede those issued by the Kremlin. Yelstin is also a consistent supporter of multiparty democracy. But we don't know much about his own economic plan: Either he wants to avoid showing his hand, or he's just as clueless as Gorbachev.
Glasnost has improved Western media access but hasn't made journalists more astute. Intoxicated by the freer flow of information, reporters seem more credulous than before. The substance of Gorbachev's and Yeltsin's ideas receives shallower coverage than the NBA finals.
Gorbachev's supporters (including the Bush administration, which has openly snubbed Yeltsin) view the Russian president as an irritating demagogue who threatens Gorbachev's authority. President Bush's infatuation with Gorbachev almost resembles a teenage crush.
Some Gorby skeptics, especially among American conservatives, have fallen into a similar trap: Yeltsin criticizes halfway reforms and says there is no Third Way, so he must be a free-marketeer! But Yeltsin has offered no detailed plans of his own, simply saying that he can transform the Soviet system into a market economy without raising prices or dislocating workers. A more prudent conclusion is that Yeltsin truly resembles a Western politician and knows how to push the hot buttons of a sympathetic audience.
The Yeltsin that emerges from his autobiography, Against the Grain, is a dedicated, albeit democratic, socialist who believes that perestroika can really work after he breaks that evil bureaucracy. The Economist portrays Yeltsin as a nationalist advocating a power shift from the Kremlin to the individual republics. While Yeltsin thus repudiates 70 years of Soviet practice, this disavowal doesn't make him a liberal democrat.
Both rivals lack a coherent vision—The Economist notes that each supports perestroika, just at different speeds. Without democratic institutions to settle this dispute, an outright power struggle seems likely. Instead of choosing sides, our interests demand that we stand behind reforms rather than reformers.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Misha and Boris Show".