MOSCOW — When Oleg Baklanov stepped out from behind the scenes to join the rightist junta that tried to seize power last month, he confirmed suspicions that the defense industry, a vast empire ruled by the grayest of bureaucrats, had long been the real force running the Soviet government.
Baklanov, a regular-featured, middle-aged man like so many of his anonymous cohorts, oversaw defense production from dual posts in the government and the Communist Party. Whenever he spoke in public, he praised glasnost, perestroika and democracy.
But the industry he represents--which accounts for a whopping 30% of total Soviet production, according to Western experts--was thrown into such agony by the cutbacks and turmoil of Kremlin reforms that it became arguably the most reactionary faction in the Soviet Union.
And Baklanov became the motor behind the putsch, well-informed politicians here believe. He is now charged with high treason.
"If you figure, using Marxist thinking, that economics is the basis of everything, then Baklanov was the basis of the coup," said Vladimir Prokhratilov, a journalist and Russian government adviser who once worked in the space industry. "What happened was a putsch by the military-industrial complex."
Baklanov may be gone, but the system that spawned him lives on, largely impervious to the \o7 perestroika \f7 of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The defense industry is so huge, pervasive and corrupt, experts argue, that it resists step-by-step reform. Now, the Soviet military-industrial complex may face something more dramatic.
Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin is proposing the massive privatization of defense plants and the cutoff of all government subsidies to the industry within two years. Such a task would be both massive and risky.
But it must be done, experts say. The Soviet defense industry accounts for a huge share of the economy, enjoying first call on raw materials. And it has locked away the majority of the country's best minds and engineering talents in "post office boxes"--the Soviet expression for secret installations.
The system "must be dismantled and rebuilt as a rational productive system," said John G. Hines, a senior Soviet military analyst at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica. "The only way to fix it is to break it completely."
"It is a Gordian knot around the Soviet future," a U.S. Defense Department official said. "Until broken, the Soviet Union cannot privatize the economy and adopt free-enterprise methods. To ask (defense producers) to make baby carriages is a perversion of the market system. Instead, their back has to be broken and they have to be disbanded."
The military-industrial complex so dominated conservative circles in Soviet politics that, as the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda pointed out, six of the eight members of the reactionary junta could be considered its handmaidens, from the defense minister to the chairman of an association of state-owned plants.
The coup may have represented the defense industry's baldest political adventure, but it was hardly the first. The military-industrial complex grew with the Soviet military machine during the Cold War and actively resisted all efforts to trim it back.
Last fall, for example, Gorbachev publicly supported a radical 500-day economic reform plan, whose forced march toward a market economy would have spelled an end to the favored position of the defense industry.
Then, suddenly and without explanation, he withdrew his support. Georgy Arbatov, director of the prestigious USA Institute and a leading proponent of defense cuts, thinks he knows why.
Military-industrial leaders "just persuaded and pressured Gorbachev," Arbatov said. "I think he rejected the 500-day plan under this pressure."
Komsomolskaya Pravda contended that Baklanov had long been the "real commander-in-chief of the economy."
"He held the real power, and not Prime Minister (Valentin) Pavlov, who now looks like a rascally teen-ager who got in with bad company," it said. "Now Pavlov's financial policy no longer seems absurd--he was saving the military-industrial complex at the expense of the people."
And the industry itself, American analysts believe, dominated the uniformed military in Soviet defense planning.
Military hardware manufacturers dictated to the military what equipment they would receive, how much of it they would get and when it would be delivered--not the other way around, as in the United States.
About 75% of the Defense Council, which formulated military policy and reported to the Soviet President, came from industry, Hines said. When Gorbachev sought to convert defense plants to civilian production, he turned to the very men whose prime interest was to preserve the defense industry.