Soviet treaty falls on hard times

Wednesday, August 7, 1991

By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — When the draft of a new Union agreement, meant to lay the basis for relations between the Soviet government and the republics of the USSR, emerged on June 17, it provoked intense discussion in the press. But enthusiasm has waned, and there is increasing recognition that the draft is unlikely to be adopted.

The cost of failure will be high. According to one count, inter-ethnic violence last year claimed the lives of 782 Soviet citizens.

The recent history of the proposal goes back to the March 17 referendum at which a large majority voted for a "renewed federation". The Fourth Congress of People's Deputies of the USSR entrusted a committee, headed by President Mikhail Gorbachev, with drawing up a draft for the agreement.

Leaders of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldavia, Georgia and Armenia indicated that they would not sign such an agreement. This amounted to a declaration that they intended to secede as soon as possible. Gorbachev was left to confer with the remaining nine republics.

On June 19, Gorbachev stated that the nine had reached agreement in principle, but that some formulae would require further "consultations".

Formally, Gorbachev has ceded vast administrative and economic authority to the republics. But these concessions merely codify the enormous erosion of central control that has already taken place.

The draft confines the authority of the Union to defence, defence production, monetary emission, main-line railways, major gas and oil pipelines, all-Union communications systems, space research and atomic energy. Although "defence production" includes a huge slice of heavy and even consumer industry, the days are well past when all-Union ministries exercised tight authority over most industry.

The USSR would become the Union of Soviet Sovereign (instead of "Socialist") Republics. As well as embodying the drift of Soviet politics, this reflects the stress on control by the republics of their own affairs. The states of the "renewed federation" would have the right to leave it and, even as members, the right to conduct their own foreign policy. Union taxes could be imposed only with the agreement of the republics.

The difficulties the draft is meeting reflect both the mistrust

created by Moscow bureaucrats during decades of trampling on national rights and the fierce struggles now unfolding in the state apparatus as rival factions battle for property and power.

In the Ukraine the Communist Party, with two-thirds of the deputies in the Supreme Soviet, calls for the republic to remain in the Union; the right-wing nationalist "Rukh" movement is opposed. But last autumn, under pressure from student hunger strikes, the soviet adopted a resolution that the Union agreement would not be signed before a new republican constitution was adopted.

Further complexities are introduced by the breaking down of the old two-tier system of republics. Most of the former "autonomous republics", which constitutionally are still part of one of the 15 Union republics, are demanding equal treatment. The republic of Tatarstan, on the Volga River, has stated that it will not sign the Union agreement as part of the Russian Federation, but only independently and directly.

The most serious obstacle to a Union agreement has come in a series of conditions in a resolution presented to the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation on July 5. One of these is that the Union budget should be based on fixed contributions from the republics. Gorbachev insists that the Union should be able to levy its own taxes with the agreement of the republics. (In recent times many republics have persistently failed to pay fixed contributions.)

An even more direct challenge is the Russian government's insistence that it have jurisdiction over all enterprises on its territory, including those of the defence production complex. This would reduce the Union apparatus to an appendage of the Russian state machine.

In store is a prolonged struggle between the Union apparatus and the "Yeltsin" camp of younger Russian apparatchiks, liberal politicians and aspiring entrepreneurs.

While the factions slug it out, national injustices will remain, tensions will go unresolved and the killings will continue.

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