In our column of July 16 we inadvertently reported that democratic and nationalist leaders want to abolish the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. We intended to say they want to abolish the party's control over the Soviet Union. (Published 7/20/90)
The resignation of Boris Yeltsin and other leading reformers from the Communist Party reaffirms insistence by Russian democrats and ethnic nationalists that the Bolsheviks offer no real hope for reform. It also undercuts the misguided loyalty of Western leaders to Mikhail Gorbachev.
While Gorbachev was consolidating his control over the corrupt and discredited party institution at the 28th congress in Moscow, anti-Communist political leaders from the Soviet Union were meeting in Prague, horrified by the West's posture. The horror would have deepened had they been at Houston the next week for the summit of the world's seven richest democracies.
We attended all three meetings -- Moscow, Prague and Houston. The gathering in Prague, bringing together the powerless rather than the powerful, was the most important. Russians and leaders of nationality movements in the other republics collectively had logged decades in the Gulag. They had no illusions that Marxist-Leninist dogma can be twisted into new forms to end 70 years of totalitarian oppression and economic degradation.
The mood in Prague mixed remorse and rage about the West's obvious attempts to bail out Bolshevism once again. Georgian nationalists noted that Gorbachev was sipping tea with Queen Elizabeth II while Soviet troops were invading churches to butcher women and children in Tblisi, atrocities hardly noticed by the international news media. Baltic delegates were crestfallen in reaction to the West's acquiescence to unchanged Soviet imperialism.
Contempt for the West was demonstrated by the brilliant Gary Kasparov, 27-year-old world chess champion who has resigned from the Communist Party to become vice chairman of the new Russian Democratic Party. He expressed his amazement at the affection of Western liberals for Gorbachev. ''He is trying to reform the system,'' said Kasparov. ''We are trying to reform the society.''
That reform was spelled out clearly in Prague: not one cent for the Soviet regime until private property is established and the Communist Party abolished. Paruyr Hayrikian spent 16 years in Soviet labor camps and is still an exile despite election to Armenia's Supreme Soviet (with more than 90 percent of the vote). He derided the West's plans for ''enormous economic support for a dying regime.''
These brave anti-Communists were ambivalent about Yeltsin as their new leader, but mainly because he then was still a member of the Communist Party. In private conversation, delegates described him as a man who listens to the people and could therefore lead the fight for self-determination and democracy.
That message was lost to the meeting of the seven in Houston a few days later. The leaders agreed on a simplistic reaffirmation of ''perestroika,'' their differences narrowed to a choice between German-French advocacy of cold cash for the Soviets and U.S. demands to delay the cash for unspecified ''reforms.'' Indeed, the notion that Marxism-Leninism can be converted into democratic capitalism is implicit in President Bush's success at Houston in getting approval of an International Monetary Fund study of whether aid can save the Soviet Union.
This was not the apparent reason for Bush's joy at his session-ending press conference. His enchantment came from his friend Mikhail's success in what Bush called a ''landslide'' reelection as general secretary of the party (which surely had been carefully and completely scripted well beforehand). The president could not resist crowing that those who had predicted Gorbachev's quick purge were premature. ''He is in the political arena, and he did pretty darn well,'' said Bush.
The president's confusion about the historic events in Moscow, viewing them as similar to intraparty struggles in Washington, was exposed the next day when Yeltsin tore up his Communist card, followed by the reformist mayors of Leningrad and Moscow.
Gorbachev's chance to make common cause with them evaporated, probably for good, when he chose to play to the hard-line majority at the Moscow congress, while Bush and his G-7 colleagues applauded. Instead of doing ''pretty darn well,'' history may show that Gorbachev blotted his page there.
Western leaders have studiously avoided contact with the heroic democratic and nationalist leaders who gathered in Prague. When Yeltsin visited Washington last year, Bush would not even invite him to the Oval Office. While the G-7 statesmen claimed there is no alternative to Gorbachev, the true democrats in Prague argued exactly the opposite: There is an alternative, true democracy, and it is the only way to end the 70-year-old ideological prison that has enslaved their native land and threatened the whole of mankind.