MOSCOW -- Mikhail Gorbachev's reversion to autocracy was revealed in his conduct after the bloodshed in Lithuania.
The Soviet president sent several members of the Supreme Soviet to Vilnius, asking them to find out exactly what had happened. When they returned to meet Gorbachev, they did not get a chance to say a word about what they had learned. Gorbachev held forth for two hours, lecturing on the events in Lithuania, though he had not been there himself.
This bizarre story made its way to Sergei Stankevich, the reformist deputy mayor of Moscow, who told it to us. "Gorbachev cannot listen," said Stankevich. "He just cannot listen."
Autocratic characteristics are common to politicians who are consumed with preserving their own power. In the case of Gorbachev, the return to autocracy explains why nearly all his former allies have given up on him to lead the Soviet Union away from totalitarianism to democracy and the free market. His advance repudiation of Lithuania's independence referendum this weekend is part of the syndrome.
Stankevich was one of those young intellectuals who joined the Communist Party in 1987 as part of the "Gorbachev wave." He left it last year after urging the Soviet president to do the same. He now accuses Gorbachev of "an attempt to stop the process of change when it is convenient for him."
The belief among close Gorbachev-watchers, including Western diplomats, is that he has made a calculated decision. He sees the hard-line Communist apparatus as the best means of staying in power, through bloody repression if need be.
On one hand, Gorbachev looks at the democracy movement as divided, disorganized and dominated by intellectuals. On his other hand is the tightly organized legacy of Lenin and Stalin: the army, the KGB and what is widely called here the "military-industrial complex" (managers of the immense Soviet defense industry).
The hard-liners are not only more impressive in manipulating the levers of power but are clearly on the offensive, determined to roll back reform and maintain the commanding heights in Soviet society. Gorbachev, Nobel Peace laureate and Time's man of the decade, has taken his stand with the big battalions.
This choice confirms Boris Yeltsin's claim that Gorbachev always has been preeminently interested in the"Autocratic characteristics are common to politicians who are consumed with preserving their own power." soft life that goes with high position. The result has been a stunning decline in the Soviet president's popular esteem at all levels.
Gorbachev is regarded as an instrument of repression by reformers. During eight days of reporting in Leningrad and Moscow, the only words of praise for Gorbachev we found were from Communist functionaries and Soviet bureaucrats. Reformers don't even give him credit for beginning perestroika, saying that Ronald Reagan, of all people, was responsible -- forcing reform from Gorbachev in response to the Strategic Defense Initiative.
But he is also under fire from anti-democrats. Hard-line Lt. Col. Viktor Alksnis, a member of the Supreme Soviet, is complaining publicly that Gorbachev two weeks ago betrayed him in Lithuania by backing down from direct presidential rule in the face of intense international reaction.
Gorbachev seems to fare no better with the ordinary Russian. Polls taken by the Leningrad Center for Social Processes in the Soviet Union's second city show that Gorbachev's overall approval rating in January was 13 percent, down from 80 percent two years ago -- an outcome conforming to other opinion surveys taken elsewhere in the Soviet Union. He had disappeared from public view until an unannounced television appearance Wednesday night in which he again attacked Lithuanian independence, contending it threatens Soviet superpower status.
Although Mikhail Gorbachev still has the support of the Bush administration, despite Secretary of State James A. Baker III's coolest-ever testimony on Capitol Hill Wednesday, and may retain the approval of the American people, here at home he has no constituency. He tenuously survives by exploiting his well-honed talents as a Communist political operator. In the process, he is becoming an archetypal Russian autocrat, one who "just cannot listen."