Which Side Are You On?

The Soviet Union is holding a divisive referendum on national unity

"It's union or chaos," trumpeted Pravda last week as a March 17 referendum on Soviet confederation drew near. "It's life or decay," the chairman of the Soviet Peace Fund warned on television. "We cannot tolerate the collapse of our country," said Ivan Polozkov, head of the Russian Communist Party. And President Mikhail Gorbachev, still head of the Soviet Communist Party, told television viewers, "We can pretty well state right now that the Soviet people are for the preservation of the union."

Are they? And what union? In the Baltic republics, more than three quarters of voters have already cast ballots in favor of "democratic" and "independent" states. Three more republics--Armenia, Georgia and Moldova (formerly Moldavia)--have refused to cooperate with the referendum. A sizable "no" vote would cast a cloud over both the union and Gorbachev. "The president is very tied up with this referendum," admitted one ranking Soviet official. "Maybe too tied up with it."

The referendum carried no legal responsibility to act. It asks only: "Do you think that it is necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal and sovereign republics in which the rights and freedoms of every citizen, regardless of ethnic origin, will be fully guaranteed?" This murky wording confuses many Soviets. "What if I like the part about "renewed,' but I don't like "socialist'?" said Grigory Nersesyan, a Moscow entrepreneur. "How am I supposed to vote?" Sociologist Tatyana Zaslavskaya, head of the Soviet Union's premier polling institute, pointed to a basic ambiguity: "Exactly which aspect of the union is supposed to be "preserved'--what already exists, or what ought to be created?"

It's hard to imagine a mandate emerging from the referendum. Parts of the western Ukraine are refusing to set up polling places, but the eastern part will carry on. In the Republic of Moldova, the prime minister announced, "I cannot offer collective suicide in the form of a referendum to my people." But local minorities of Russians and Turkish-speaking Gagauz vowed to vote for the union anyway; they view Moscow as a guardian of their autonomy from Moldovans. Even in the Baltic republics, some Russian-speaking regions will hold the referendum.

The vote in the Russian Republic matters most of all. With half the population and most of the land mass of the Soviet Union, Russia has overwhelming political weight. And it is the domain of Gorbachev's nemesis, Boris Yeltsin, chairman of the republic's Parliament and the country's most popular single political figure. Last month Yeltsin called for Gorbachev to resign and let the Federation Council take charge of the country. On Saturday he urged his supporters to "declare war" on the Gorbachev leadership. He also denounced the just-published draft of a new Union Treaty, saying it leaves power too centralized and allows too little room for private property. Supreme Soviet Chairman Anatoly Lukyanov condemned Yeltsin's speech as "irresponsible and inadmissible."

But even Yeltsin has supported the idea of union--not, of course, on Gorbachev's terms. Where the referendum is held, it will probably pass. The Central Asian republics, which rely on heavy subsidies from Moscow, will likely vote to stay in the union. Polls show the Slavic republics of Russia, the Ukraine and Belorussia will vote for the union--with great indifference. Zaslavskaya projected that a mere 60 percent of eligible voters would take part, and of those, about 60 percent would vote za ("for"). That result would not provide a mandate for anything. "I don't see a single plus resulting from this referendum," said Stanislav Shatalin, a pro-market economist who left Gorbachev's team after January's violence in Lithuania.

The Communist Party is using fears of economic collapse to encourage "yes" votes on the referendum. "I do business with 14 of our republics," one factory manager told the nightly news. "Of course I'm for the union." A poster at a Communist Party rally in Tyumen, a Siberian oil city, was even more explicit: "The more presidents we have, the fewer commodities are available." And the more expensive they are. Moldovan authorities have nearly doubled prices on wine and brandy for Moscow, while Georgian distillers want a whopping 15 rubles--about the daily wage of an average worker--for a bottle of vodka. Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov has tried to blame local governments for the price hikes, but Yeltsin denies the charge, and says that economic frustration will provoke civil unrest.

That helps explain why Gorbachev has cast his lot with the conservatives. Since February, the Army has had the power to patrol the streets jointly with the police, a measure that many called a prelude to martial law. Last week the Supreme Soviet passed a draft KGB law that would give the secret police powers to combat "antisocial" activity. The Security Council, a new group of advisers appointed last week, is also packed with law-and-order conservatives. "Gorbachev is a president without a people-- just an Army, a party and a KGB," said Vitaly Korotich, editor of Ogonyok magazine. "And they need to provoke something with this referendum. They can only exist in an air of tension."

The tension is obvious. Are you za? Or are you protiv ("against")? The result is blind passion: one anti-Yeltsin legislator returned to her hometown of Vladivostok to find demonstrators branding her a "Judas." Pro-Moscow sympathizers in Lithuania are called traitors. In the end, the referendum of reformers is reducing complex choices to a loyalty test. "Everything has come down to one question," said Nikolai Andreyev of the daily paper Izvestia. "Are you with us or against us?" So much for the "union" in "Soviet Union."

PHOTO: Declaring war on the leadership: Demonstrators at a pro-Yeltsin rally in Moscow (ALAIN NOGUES--SYGMA).


The Baltics may want divorce, but the West is still enamored of Mikhail Gorbachev. When John Major made his first visit to Moscow last week as Britain's prime minister, he spent four hours with the Soviet president but snubbed Gorbachev's reformist rival, Boris Yeltsin. Britain "can continue to do business with Mr. Gorbachev in a very satisfactory manner," he said later. It was a disappointment for the Soviet Union's embattled democratic forces. The bloodshed in the Baltics in January convinced them that Gorbachev has gone over to hard-liners determined to hold the country together, by military force if necessary. Now they want the West to stop Gorbachev from sacrificing his perestroika reforms by backing more democratic forces in the 15 Soviet republics. "The unpopular leadership of the country simply cannot carry out radical reforms," Yeltsin recently told a visiting U.S. congressional delegation. "The thing to do is work with the democratic republics."

No one suggests Western leaders should rebuke Gorbachev. That would play into the hands of Kremlin conservatives, opening them to charges of interference in Soviet internal affairs. Gorbachev's continued cooperation remains useful for the West, as in the Persian Gulf War or future arms-control talks. Also, many Western analysts believe Gorbachev's recent turn toward conservative policies at home may be a short-term tactic rather than a long-term strategy. If so, continued dialogue with the West could help push the Soviet president back toward reform. Finally, not all leaders of the restive Soviet republics are true democrats or even attractive alternatives. Independence for the five Soviet republics in Central Asia would almost certainly produce five dictatorships.

The question is whether the West should end its fixation on Gorbachev personally in favor of broader support for democratic change in the Soviet Union. Western leaders could, for example, privately pressure Gorbachev by conditioning the trade and aid he needs on his acceptance of self-determination in the Baltics and other democratic reforms. In public, they could promote direct trade and aid to more liberal republics instead of to the central government in Moscow. That would serve notice on Kremlin neo-Stalinists that they cannot make Gorbachev a human shield for a policy of official violence in the Baltics.

Western fears of where Soviet democracy might lead are unfounded. Some worried that Baltic independence could crush Russian minority rights. But recent votes in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia proved that even the Russians living there prefer independence. Others said a breakup of the Soviet Union could put nuclear weapons in the hands of as many as 15 new nations. But there are no strategic nuclear arms deployed in the Baltics or in the other republics demanding independence. The few in potential danger spots like the Ukraine can be moved; and in any case separatist forces wouldn't possess the secret codes needed to fire any nuclear weapons they might capture.

Secretary of State James Baker arrives in Moscow this week with some tough words for Gorbachev. Diplomats say Baker will tell the Soviet leader the United States won't accept military suppression of the Baltic drive for independence. He will also warn that Soviet rule-bending on the conventional-arms treaty (CFE) signed in Paris last November--by redefining three infantry divisions under an exempt naval category--could delay the START accord on strategic nuclear arms. But Baker should go further. He should also tell Gorbachev that if there is to be lasting Soviet-American cooperation in a post-cold-war world, he must offer more than vague promises of continued "restructuring." America expects him to translate those words into genuine--and irreversible--reforms.