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Soviet Union

General Secretary: Power and Authority

That certain policies throughout Soviet history have been so clearly identified with the general secretary of the CPSU demonstrated the importance of that position as well as of the stakes in the succession struggle upon a general secretary's death or removal from office. As general secretary, Stalin determined the party's policies in the economy and foreign affairs and thus gave his name to a whole era in Soviet history. Khrushchev put his stamp on a variety of policies, including peaceful coexistence with the West and the virgin land campaign (see Khrushchev's Reforms and Fall , ch. 2). Soviet and Western observers identified Brezhnev with détente and the Soviet military buildup (see The Brezhnev Era , ch. 2). In the late 1980s, Gorbachev associated his name with the policies of openness, restructuring, and democratization.

The general secretary possessed many powers. As chairman of the Politburo, the general secretary decided the agenda and timing of its deliberations. The general secretary acted as chief executive of the party apparatus and thus supervised the nomenklatura. The general secretary also chaired the Defense Council, which managed the Soviet military-industrial complex (see Defense Council , ch. 18). Finally, through attendance at summit meetings with world heads of state, the general secretary acquired symbolic legitimation as the Soviet Union's top ruler.

Once selected for this position by other members of the Politburo and confirmed by the Central Committee, the general secretary had to proceed to build a base of power and strengthen his authority. Officials considered eligible for the position of general secretary held a great amount of power to begin with; they always occupied seats on the Politburo and Secretariat, and they developed a large number of clients throughout the party and government bureaucracies. The general secretary's efforts to extend this power base involved placing loyal clients in strategic positions throughout party and government hierarchies. One measure of the success of the general secretary's efforts in this regard was turnover in the Central Committee at the first party congress following the secretary's accession to the position (see Central Committee , this ch.). The general secretary used these clients to promote desired policies at all levels of the party and government bureaucracies and to ensure accurate transmission of information about policy problems up the hierarchy (see Nomenklatura , this ch.).

To secure his rule and advance his policies, the general secretary also had to increase his authority. American Sovietologist George Breslauer has written that efforts to build authority involved legitimation of the general secretary's policies and programs and demonstration of his competence or indispensability as a leader. The general secretary strove to show that his policies derived from Lenin's teachings and that these policies have led to successes in socialist construction. Moreover, the general secretary strove to demonstrate a unique insight into the teachings of Marx and Lenin and into the current stage of world development. The general secretary also emphasized personal ties to the people and a leadership motivated by the interests of the workers and peasants (see Party Legitimacy , this ch.). One further means to strengthen the legitimacy of the general secretary's power has been the acquisition of high government offices. Thus in October 1988, Gorbachev became chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, which was the title for head of the Soviet state. He retained his position as head of state when in May 1989 the newly elected Congress of People's Deputies close a new Supreme Soviet and elected Gorbachev to the just created position of chairman of the Supreme Soviet. In the past, the head of the Soviet state sometimes had been referred to as "president" in Soviet and Western media, although such a position was not identified in the Constitution.

Another means that Soviet general secretaries have used to ensure their authority is the cult of the leader. The cult of the leader has several intended audiences. For example, the general secretary used the cult of the leader to intimidate actual or potential rivals and thus force them to accept and follow his policies. In addition, the cult of the leader reassured those members of the party and government hierarchies whose careers depended upon the success of the general secretary's policies. The cult of the leader provided inspiration to those who wished to identify with a patriarchal figure.

Breslauer has written that Soviet general secretaries since Stalin have attempted to build their authority by creating a sense of national élan. For example, Iurii V. Andropov, general secretary from November 1982 to February 1984, sought to rouse Soviet society with his campaign against alcoholism and corruption. The general secretary has also sought to play the role of problem solver. For example, in the mid- and late 1980s, Gorbachev sought to reverse a decline in economic efficiency by promoting economic policies designed to curb the ministries' role in Soviet economic life and thereby encourage enterprise initiative (see Reforming the Planning System , ch. 11).

Since the death of Lenin, the party elite has been unable to institute regulations governing the transfer of office from one general secretary to the next. The Nineteenth Party Conference called for limiting party officeholders to two five-year terms. However, it was unclear whether this proviso would apply to the general secretary and other top leaders. The party leadership has yet to devise procedures by which the general secretary may relinquish the office. The powers of the office were not set; neither were its rights and duties. These factors combined to generate a high degree of unpredictability in selecting a new leader and a period of uncertainty while the new general secretary consolidates power.

Three stages have characterized the efforts of various general secretaries to consolidate their power and authority. The first stage begins while the incumbent leader is in power and lasts through his death or ouster. Potential successors seek to place themselves in more powerful positions relative to their rivals. For example, under Konstantin U. Chernenko (general secretary from February 1984 to March 1985) Gorbachev chaired Politburo meetings in the general secretary's absence and also assumed responsibilities for cadre policy. These responsibilities enabled Gorbachev to set the agenda for Politburo meetings and to place persons loyal to him in important positions throughout the regime. Gorbachev's unsuccessful rivals for power, Grigorii V. Romanov and Viktor V. Grishin, had fewer such opportunities to influence the outcome of the struggle to succeed Chernenko.

The second stage occurs with the transfer of authority to the new leader and both the accumulation of positions and the authority that goes with them. This stage can occur over a prolonged period of time and coincide with the next stage. For example, only in 1977 did Brezhnev, named general secretary in 1964, become chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and thus de facto head of state. The third stage involves two steps: consolidation of the new leader's power through the removal of his predecessor's clients and those of his actual and potential rivals for power; and the installation of the new leader's clients in key positions. This stage probably lasts for the duration of the general secretary's tenure.

A succession struggle entails opportunities and problems for the new party leader and for the Soviet leadership as a whole. Transfer of office from one general secretary to another can improve the possibilities for change. Seweryn Bialer has written that "ambition, power, and the desire for innovation all meet in a succession struggle and so prepare the ground for change." Succession disrupts the normal pattern of business. Also, policy initiatives are a critical means of consolidating a new leader's position. Khrushchev's condemnation of Stalin represented an appeal to party officials dissatisfied with Stalinism and an effort to define and control a new program that would better meet the needs of the party and society. Similarly, in the late 1980s Gorbachev's initiatives appealed to officials and citizens who were dissatisfied with the inertia of the late Brezhnev period and who sought to modernize the Soviet economy.

Yet, a succession struggle can also occasion serious difficulties for the leadership. A succession struggle increases the probability for personal and policy conflicts. In turn, these conflicts can lead to political passivity as the rivals for power turn their attention to that struggle rather than to policy development and execution. When the general secretary lacks the influence necessary to promote desired policies, a sense of inertia can debilitate the political system at the intermediate and lower levels. This factor partially explains the resistance that Khrushchev and, in the late 1980s, Gorbachev met in their respective efforts to alter the policies of their predecessors.

Data as of May 1989

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