The autumn of 1990 seemed to promise improvement in the Soviet political climate, and a transition to new kinds of economic relations appeared at last to be under way. Today we have to realize that this transitional stage consists of two processes that are at once interrelated and independent. The first is the transition from empire to a commonwealth of independent states, and the second is the transition from a centralized, planned economy to a market economy and private enterprise.
For the first time in five years this autumn we saw the start of a concrete program for dealing with our growing difficulties. The economic program of the economist Stanislav Shatalin—albeit controversial in many respects, including some of its basic premises—offered the Supreme Soviet a chance to deal radically with economic problems by setting a five-hundred-day timetable for making fundamental changes in much of the economy. The agreement in late August between Gorbachev and Yeltsin was also an encouraging event. It was perceived as an agreement between the central government and the republics, primarily the Russian federation of which Yeltsin is president. Without such an agreement no further progress is possible in principle.
But no less important was the possibility that the potential dialogue between Gorbachev and Yeltsin could become the start of a center-left coalition. That the agreement between Gorbachev and Yeltsin could be seen as a symbolic manifestation of the potential cooperation between the left and the center is very important from my point of view, since I believe such cooperation is absolutely necessary if we are to surmount our enormous problems. The agreement between Gorbachev and Yeltsin also seemed to pose an obstacle to both chaos and authoritarian rule.
However, these glimpses of fragile hope for our society were blurred by intense new conflicts, which by the end of November ended in a presidential act that I can call by no other name than a step toward dictatorship.
How did this new development come about? In September and October our politics had taken another turn, toward a sharp conservative reaction. I attribute this to the attempt to exert strong pressure on Gorbachev. And there is no contradiction here with what I have said elsewhere—that Gorbachev himself was conservative enough not to be threatened by the pressure of conservative forces from outside his own circle. It is otherwise very difficult to explain both his rejection of the Shatalin program in late October—the only plausible program in the present circumstances—and his attempts to combine the Shatalin plan, for which he himself had a marked preference, with the government program sponsored by Nikolai Ryzhkov, which was altogether incompatible with Shatalin’s program.
At the same time, the coalition of conservative and reactionary forces has been gathering strength. I mean the Party apparat, the KGB, the military-industrial complex, and the generals. There were threatening troop movements in the fall—that is perfectly clear now. The confusion and bewilderment the generals displayed when they spoke earlier this …