Gorbachev's Weak Lineup

Valery Boldin has a thankless job. He is chief of staff to the Soviet president, and as a longtime communist functionary is about as popular in Moscow as John Sununu is in Washington. But at least Sununu and George have a staff system that works. Mikhail Gorbechev's office is another matter. Even as Boldin struggles to control the flow of information, the omnivorous Soviet leader circumvents him. "Informing the president is not easy," says Boldin carefully. "He reads too much."

Nothing is easy on the presidential staff. Gorbachev has dissolved old advisory bodies without establishing new ones. The Politburo, once the ruling clique of the Soviet Union, has turned into an assemblage of local Communist Party leaders, most of whom don't even live in Moscow. The Presidential Council, hailed as a new brain trust in the spring of 1990, was abolished by the end of the year. Some of the president's oldest confidants resigned after last winter's conservative chill. "Gorbachev has a very weak team," said Aleksandr Vladislavlev, an industrial lobbyist who sees the Soviet president frequently. "To tell you the truth, that's his greatest failing."

A lack of expert specialists is the team's most glaring weakness. With the Soviet economy in a tailspin, Gorbachev does not have a single trained economist in his inner circle. A former ideology chief of the Communist Party, Vadim Medvedev, has become a senior presidential adviser on foreign economic matters. A former Pravda correspondent in Egypt, Yevgeny Primakov, advised Gorbachev closely last month during his meeting with chiefs of the seven big industrial powers in London. Both men have economic degrees, but neither has seriously studied the subject-- much less market capitalism--for 30 years or more. "Gorbachev keeps his best players out of the game," says Stanislav Shatalin, a top Soviet economist. "The top goal scorers are on the bench." Shatalin himself left Gorbachev earlier this year after the crackdown in Lithuania.

The Soviet leader seems to want to do it all. According to Boldin, Gorbachev doesn't have a speechwriter; he calls aides and dictates texts to them himself. Primakov recently told Soviet television about Gorbachev's preparations for the G-7 meeting in London. He considered economic proposals from various advisers, as well as comments from the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development and the International Monetary Fund. "He was very well armed," Primakov said. "But you have to know the president. In the end he sat down and started to work himself." The result was a 23-page report that left Western leaders unimpressed.

Communications failures are common. Gorbachev's presidential decrees frequently contradict the regulations issued by his own ministers. Asked by foreign correspondents this spring to comment on a decree concerning internal security, Interior Minister Boris Pugo admitted he hadn't heard about it. An aide rushed from the room to get his boss a copy. When troops in Interior Ministry uniforms began attacking customs posts in the Baltic States last May, the ministry was perplexed. The troops were KGB men. "The right hand doesn't always know what the left hand is doing," said one Soviet official.

Sometimes Western channels of information may be quicker. During last month's summit, when the two presidents were meeting at a dacha outside Moscow, US officials got word of bloody raid on a Lithuanian customs post. But the Soviet side hadn't heard, and it was Sununu who broke the news to Gorbachev. The Soviet leader then put the KGB in charge of investigations, an act one Soviet described as "sending the goat into the garden." In Russian, that means using the fox to guard the chicken coop. But Gorbachev has no other goats to rely on.