Gorbachev’s ideas sound great, but…

Sometimes words left out of a sentence are just as important as those left in. Especially in the case of political figures, whose words usually are just fluff.

General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union was out in full force this week looking as though he was ready to implement democracy. But his appeals lack real substance.

Gorbachev called for elections at the regional level that would pit one candidate against another. Traditional elections there feature one candidate; preprinted, non-secret ballots; and universal suffrage (you vote or else). This, Gorbachev said, was needed to bring fresh forces up through the ranks, eventually to intermingle with and perhaps replace the geriatric set now in charge.

Gorbachev also called for legislation which would allow people to sue the government, supposedly for redress of grievances. This, too, would be quite a marvelous development. In the past, Soviet citizens have kept their grievances to themselves so as not to be considered troublemakers. It seems unlikely that such a generous offer would help dissidents and political prisoners sitting in Soviet asylums, but it might help the poor grunts who had to put out the Chernobyl fire.

Finally, Gorvachev proposed that Soviet journalists be given the right to have access to government officials, guaranteed. Sounds good.

But what Gorbachev didn’t say is more important than what he said. He didn’t say the candidates for regional posts won’t be hand-picked by the state. He didn’t say they will provide Soviet citizens with a real choice. He’s didn’t say how the people will sue the government, who will be allowed to do so and for what purposes. How many Soviet citizens would have the nerve to sue their government, a body known for arbitrary arrest and invasion of privacy?

As for freedom of the press, it hardly matters if Soviet journalists have guaranteed access to leadership if they can’t ask that leadership anything, get honest answers and print them without fear.

As nice as they sound, Gorbachev’s “reforms” will have to be seen to be believed. The Soviets love to look democratic (which demonstrates the popularity of the democratic ideal in world opinion). The trick is to follow through.