Mikhail S. Gorbachev badly needed this week's summit to ease growing dissatisfaction in his own country over his political and economic reforms.
The embattled leader can use the success of this week's summit to counter mounting frustration at home over his new economic and political ideas, says David Powell, a Harvard professor.Powell, author of several books on the Soviet Union and a renowned Sovietologist, addressed Utah's Harvard Club Thursday afternoon in the Alta Club.
Powell termed Gorbachev "very vulnerable" and "astonishingly brave" in the face of growing Soviet disenchantment over his new ideas.
The leader's commitment to change may yet get him thrown out of power, he said.
Gorbachev has tried to bring new thinking to the Soviet Union the way John F. Kennedy tried to bring it to the United States, Powell said. Gorbachev is trying hard to decentralize his country's political system and restructure the economy. He is cutting back the Communist Party's control over the daily lives of Soviet citizens while trying to shift the emphasis of the economy from quantity to profitability.
Powell likened Gorbachev's passion for change to Nikita Khrushchev's era. Khrushchev also tried to change the sluggish Soviet economy. That drive for improvement got him thrown out of power.
Gorbachev runs a high risk of the same fate, Powell said. He has angered both the public and the party with his political and economic changes.
Gorbachev decided the Soviet Union had too many people - about 250,000 - who worked full time for the Communist People, Powell said, and started firing them.
"Thousands and thousands of people have been thrown out of their jobs," Powell said. Layoffs are unheard of in the communist country, and party leaders are alarmed by the cuts.
Gorbachev is right, Powell said. The government is top-heavy, and the reduction in force will eventually stimulate the economy and improve citizens' lives. But both the party and the people are angry about the change.
"Mr. Gorbachev has really struck a sensitive nerve. A lot of people are very disturbed with him."
While Gorbachev's economic reform will eventually strengthen the economy, the transition from a quantity-based economy to a market-sensitive economy is dragging the country's standard of living down.
"They are having desperate, desperate problems," Powell said. "From my view, that means Gorbachev is having desperate problems."
Instead of encouraging factories to greater volumes of a product no one wants to buy so it can be stockpiled in warehouses, Gorbachev is trying to build an economy that emphasizes the quality and marketability of a product.
"Managers and workers are getting paid not just for what they produce but for what they market and sell," he said.
But the benefits aren't coming quickly enough to ease the disruption.
Gorbachev frequently expresses perplexity and frustration because he can't get his programs going, Powell said.
"He doesn't have the wherewithal that Stalin had. He doesn't murder his colleagues. He made that very great difference in the Soviet Union. He has to use persuasion instead."
Despite his problems at home, Gorbachev's people respect his success in foreign affairs, Powell said. Gorbachev can point to the reduction of U.S. missiles in Germany and the rapid erosion of the NATO alliance and call the summit a success, Powell said.
That success might briefly stem the rising tide of criticism at home. President Ronald Reagan has strongly supported Gorbachev's reforms, Powell said. Gorbachev is using that support to still dissent at home.
Gorbachev's tenure has brought new religious tolerance to the Soviet Union, Powell said. The country has been historically brutal to religion, particularly to the Jewish and Catholic faiths. But Gorbachev has ushered in an era of comparative religious freedom. The religious freedom is part of his larger vision of ideological freedom.