A near-unanimous vote in the Soviet state of Georgia in favor of secession from the Soviet Union is the latest serious blow to President Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to hold the country together.
The lopsided nature of the balloting - monitored by foreign observers - was stunning. More than 90 percent of all eligible voters went to the polls and an incredible 99 percent reportedly favored secession.Georgia, a small state of 5.3 million people situated between the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea, had boycotted the national referendum on Soviet unity held March 17.
Like the Lithuanian "independence" election earlier this year, the Georgia vote for secession is more symbolic than real. The voting essentially amounts to an opinion poll, rather than an actual departure from the union - a move that Gorbachev certainly would oppose by force of arms, if necessary.
In fact, just hours after the outcome of the voting, the Soviet national legislature declared a state of emergency and authorized sending more Soviet troops into Georgia, ostensibly to contain ethnic violence in the South Ossetia region. But those troops might be confronted by armed Georgian paramilitary groups.
The Georgian election - and its anti-government overtones - comes at a time when Gorbachev is under other severe pressures and increasingly looks more and more like an old-time communist, similar to the ones he used to castigate in the early days of glasnost.
Consider these other points of strain and unrest:
- In his first public appearance since his Dec. 20 resignation in protest over Gorbachev's hard-line moves, former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze spoke on Soviet television and said recent events had confirmed his warnings of an approaching dictatorship. That public criticism follows on the heels of a massive pro-democracy, anti-Gorbachev, anti-communist demonstration in Moscow last week.
- Even more ominous, as far as grassroots emotions go, are the huge price hikes that went into effect this week for all consumer goods, including food. The Kremlin is seeking to eliminate subsidies it has paid for years to keep prices artifcially low, something it can no longer afford.
What will be the reaction to price increase ranging from 200 to 1,500 percent, including the most basic foodstuffs? No one can be sure in a downtrodden country that has lived with chronic shortages of everything for years. But at some point, unrest could turn to violence or even revolution.
- If violence breaks out in Moscow over high prices, who will contain it? Right now, nobody knows. Gorbachev stripped police powers from the pro-democracy city regime prior to last week's demonstrations, and soldiers sent into control crowds have been pulled out of the city.
- A monthlong continuing strike by 300,000 coal miners - about a fourth of all miners - has further hurt the economy. Some miners are threatening to flood the mines if their pay demands are not met or troops are used against them. Flooding would shut down the mines permanently.
- The Parliament of the vast republic of Russia, which includes Moscow, is deadlocked with power struggles between hard-line communists and reformer Boris Yeltsin and has failed to address crucial domestic needs, including what to do about pensions and other fixed incomes in the face of double and triple and quadruple price hikes.
Each week, the Soviet Union looks more fragile, the economy closer to collapse, and the possibility of internal violence greater. Gorbachev must be getting very little sleep these days.