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Soviet Showdown : And the Winner Is. . . : Gorbachev Faces a Vastly Different Soviet Union Now

August 25, 1991|Raymond L. Garthoff | Raymond L. Garthoff, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a retired Foreign Service officer and former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria

WASHINGTON — Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev is back in Moscow, but he has returned to a very different Soviet Union from the one that he left for his Crimean vacation only days ago.

The most important consequence of the Moscow coup against him is, of course, the fact that it failed despite support from the heads of the KGB secret police, the Internal Affairs Ministry with the uniformed police, and the Defense Ministry. It is, of course, also important that the coup was attempted.

Moreover, the coup was undertaken not because the plotters were thirsty for power, but because of their growing desperation over the course of events. It was a last-chance attempt to thwart the political transformation of the Soviet Union, mounted on the eve of the planned signing of a new Union Treaty shifting much of the power of the states from the central leadership to the republics.

A third notable aspect of the attempted coup was that it was not mounted by the Communist Party or even in its name. While all eight coup leaders were Communists, so is Gorbachev and so were many of those who successfully resisted it (although not Russian Republic President Boris N. Yeltsin or the mayors of Moscow and Leningrad).

So Gorbachev is indeed back in Moscow and, at least in the figurative sense, back in power. In some respects, his actual power may also be enlarged: The influence and pressures of conservative forces in the security and military organizations, and in the party and economic structure, are severely diminished. Gorbachev also has the benefit of having been the victim of the plotters and thus more clearly distinguished from those former conservative colleagues than before. But now he must adapt to the changes that have occurred if he is to maintain his authority; one of those changes is an irreversibly reduced role for the Union president.

The attempted coup and its failure has accelerated the very developments that the coup leaders sought to stave off. While the Union Treaty was not signed, in fact Yeltsin's Russian Republic and the other republics have gained even more power than that treaty would have bestowed. Undoubtedly, the Union Treaty--or an even more radical version--will be signed. But Yeltsin's standing has so risen in the minds of the people, and the standing of central authorities so declined, that Gorbachev will have a difficult time holding even the lessened role he would have had under the treaty if the coup attempt had never occurred.

The movement toward independence by the Baltic States has gained momentum. In direct response to the attempt by the coup plotters to reassert control, Estonia and Latvia declared their independence, as Lithuania had done in March 1990. While Yeltsin's Russian Republic is disposed to recognize the independence of these republics, Gorbachev and the Union leadership still are not. But they should enter into serious, if difficult, negotiations seeking a resolution of the matter; they will certainly refrain from attempts to impose central rule by force.

The first real order of business of the post-coup era was a meeting Thursday between Gorbachev and the leaders of the nine republics inclined to sign the Union Treaty. The extent of the authority devolving to the republics will now be even greater than earlier planned.

The fact of a coup attempt by leading officials of Gorbachev's own team shows the difficulty and weakness of past attempts to compromise widely differing political elements. Nonetheless, the plotters seemed somewhat ambivalent themselves, and their restraint from more forceful and wide-ranging measures cannot be attributed to incompetence or inadvertence; they tried to mount a coup d'etat with minimum force and disruption, and to hold on to a semblance of legitimacy. They wanted to change some important aspects of policy, and only acted when it seemed necessary to depose Gorbachev in order to do so. But they did not seek to overthrow the whole regime.

This does not mitigate the illegality of the plotters' action, but it does suggest that its members had limited aims. They even left open the possibility that Gorbachev would change his mind and accept the new order, in which case his "illness" could be "cured."

And they claimed to remain true to perestroika and reform--but, in their version, clearly stopping short of what they saw as an impending disintegration of the Union and evisceration of the Communist Party. But while reaffirming the Union, which could find popular support, they did not act in the name of the party, which could not.

Future cooperation between Gorbachev and Yeltsin remains critical. To a lesser but still important degree, the future relationship between Gorbachev (and Yeltsin) and Leonid Kravchuk of the Ukraine and Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan, presidents of the next largest and most important republics, is also highly important.

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