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The Road to Minsk


The collapse of the Soviet Union has been hailed by much of the Western press as prefiguring a new and hopeful era in contemporary history. True, there have been occasional pleas for caution and some grim prognostications. Secretary of State Baker has said we must wait to see what will happen, while Robert Gates, the new head of the CIA, warned a House subcommittee of the chaos and mayhem that would result from dismantling the (once evil) empire.1

Mostly, however, optimism prevailed. Typical of this view is a recent column in The Wall Street Journal. There is no sign, says the author, of widespread disorder in either Russia or the other republics, as some have warned; the threat of hunger is imaginary; unemployment is a serious matter, “but is it better to have full employment with half the people doing unproductive or counter-productive things…or to turn them loose to scrounge for a living providing real goods and services?”2 Other observers have been more restrained, arguing that the Commonwealth has gotten off to a good start, and that with proper support from the West, it is bound to succeed. Still others gloated over the end of Gorbachev and extolled his de facto successor, Boris Yeltsin.3

The climate was rather different in Moscow and other cities that I visited last November. The politicians of the new regime were appropriately triumphant. Many people, however, talked of another Putsch, perhaps mounted by disgruntled generals. The satisfaction with the imminent fall of “the center” was attenuated by the daily economic grind, the hours (three, four, even seven) spent in queues for a loaf of bread or a sack of potatoes, the harrowing absence of basic medications and articles of clothing. “Don’t talk to me about politics,” said one Moscow intelligent, who in the past wanted to speak of nothing but. “All I can think of these days is whether there’s going to be food on my plate in the evening.”

The pervasive mood—in the long lines waiting to get into stores or at metro stations—was one of weariness, cynicism, and anger, directed at all politicians, from Yeltsin down. Contemptuous of the old (and still powerful) nomenklatura, people as readily dismissed “the so called democrats,” who after being elected to office proved more adept at feathering their nests than attending to the grievances of their constituents. “They are all the same, these robbers,” was a view I heard constantly expressed.


Who is right, the “optimists” or the “pessimists”? To answer this question, a brief glance at the events of the past three months is in order, and, in particular, at the failed coup of August 18–22. And not only at what happened but also, in the words of Hugh Trevor-Roper, at what “might have” happened.4 For here, I believe, lies the key to understanding the emergence of the new Commonwealth of Independent States and to the problems it will face in the months and years ahead.

Though it collapsed almost as soon as it was staged, the coup has inspired a number of myths. That “people’s power” brought down the “State Committee for the State of Emergency” is one: supposedly, the minority that engaged in active resistance was backed by the rest of the population, certainly in Moscow and other large cities.

Not quite. Public opinion polls conducted during the Putsch showed that half of the respondents considered the Putsch “illegal,” about 25 percent approved of it, and the rest had no opinion. In other words, as one Soviet observer put it, “a significant part of the population in no way expressed its support for the democratic forces.”5

Many anecdotes confirm these surveys. A couple I know, both resolute liberals, who live adjacent to the “White House” and thus had a ringside seat for the events, described it as an “eerie experience. Even a block away from where we live crowds were milling around, for all the world oblivious to what was going on only eight hundred meters away.” For many Muscovites, especially young ones, this was, as one of them put it, “the finest moment of my life.” For others it offered an opportunity to let off steam and flout social conventions (“there is going to be a rash of ‘Putsch babies’ come next May,” as one person said).

Another myth has it that the Putschists were Communists. In fact, although they were all high-ranking Party members, they were above all “statists”—that is, bureaucrats concerned about the preservation of the organs of central government that guaranteed their power and privileges (villas, special rest homes, provisions for their children to study abroad, and the like). Hence the timing of the coup, one day before the signing of a “union treaty” that would have taken power away from their ministries and institutions (which controlled, for instance, the monetary and banking systems, food distribution, energy exports, and security services) and assigned much of that power to the republican governments.

But what of Trevor-Roper’s “might have been”? What if the plotters had not launched their misbegotten enterprise? In the version of recent history now proffered by some Soviet politicians, and especially by Yeltsin, the union had been doomed for a long time, and the Putsch was merely the final nail in its coffin. Yeltsin refines this version by claiming that he personally had long opposed Gorbachev’s notion of a “state,” favoring instead a loose “federation” or “confederation.” Gorbachev’s “stubbornness,” he claims, had finally forced him to give up his hopes for a confederation and to create, with his Belarussian and Ukrainian friends, the new Commonwealth.6

This is, at best, a half-truth. Before the abortive coup, most Soviet republics were ready to sign a “Union Treaty” preserving the state, in however feeble a form. In the text that was to be signed on August 20, the Union of Sovereign States was described as the successor state of the USSR, with a federative structure based on its own new constitution. The preservation and renewal of a union was explicitly endorsed. Moreover, the text listed a variety of treaties and agreements as within the exclusive competence of the Union, as well as those within the joint competence of the Union and the states signing the treaty.

On August 22, at the “Rally of Victors” outside the White House, Yeltsin declared emphatically that there should be no delay in signing the Union Treaty, although revisions would be needed.7 As late as November 30, only two days before Ukraine voted for independence on December 2, Yeltsin said on central television that he could not imagine a Union without Ukraine, and that if Ukraine did not sign a union treaty neither would Russia. Anatoli Sobchak, Petersburg’s mayor, was even more forceful in his support of the union. In his address to the USSR Supreme Soviet on August 28, Sobchak argued in favor of the coordinating and arbitrating role of the central government, warning of the possible “catastrophic consequences” of control of nuclear weapons by the separate states.8 He repeated his warning as late as December 14, observing that the liquidation of all central government bodies could bring “anarchy” and “massive violations of human rights.”9

Until the coup, a new union treaty was supported by most of the country except the Baltic republics, Moldavia (now Moldova), and Georgia. Each successive version weakened the power of the center; each was approved by Gorbachev and the other republics. Sentiment against the central government kept growing, but it wasn’t until the coup that it became transformed, often for opportunistic reasons, into the demand for outright independence. Georgi Shakhnazarov, one of Gorbachev’s closest political advisors, called the Putsch the “detonator” of the breakup of the Union, which until then most political leaders from Kiev to Ashkabad had thought it prudent to retain, despite the contradictions in the new Union Treaty which raised serious questions whether it would be effective.10

Last December 10, Leonid Kravchuk, the President of Ukraine, told his country’s parliament that “the breakup of the USSR did not occur on December 7–8”—that is, at the meeting in Minsk which laid the foundations of the new Commonwealth—“but at the beginning of the period of perestroika—and we know precisely who is the author of this breakup.”11 The agile Kravchuk leaped on the nationalist bandwagon last spring, after taking an active part in the Party’s campaign against the nationalist Ukrainian movement Rukh in 1988 and 1989. Quick to recognize the huge popular support that Rukh and its position in favor of Ukrainian sovereignty commanded, Kravchuk put distance between himself and Moscow; he became an increasingly fervid supporter of Ukrainian sovereignty—though stopping short of advocating full independence. During the first two days of the Putsch, he, in effect, recognized the Emergency Committee; he then turned anti-Putsch—and indeed, anti-Communist and ardently pro-independence—after the Putsch failed.12

In Central Asia, where the idea of a new union had considerable support, largely because of fear of Russian imperial tendencies, the local Party authorities outdid Kravchuk in hypocrisy. After waffling about the Putsch, they used it to consolidate their power and swoop down on their political opponents. In Uzbekistan, Gorbachev’s portraits disappeared on August 19. A day later, the police arrested leaders of the political opposition for “violating” the Emergency Committee’s prohibition on public meetings and demonstrations. On August 22, when it was already obvious that the coup had come to grief, Islam Karimov, the republic’s president, signed a decree making the Committee’s directives illegal on Uzbek territory. At the same time, he issued more decrees banning oppositional activity. Uzbekistan, he explained to visiting Western journalists, wasn’t ready for democracy.13

Similar developments took place in Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan. Kirgizstan was the sole exception, because the local Party organization was reckless enough to try to overthrow the republic’s popular president, Askar Akaev. Elected less than a year earlier, Akaev defeated the Party plotters by drawing on the support of local liberal reformers (such as republican Minister of Internal Affairs Feliks Kulov, who ordered local MVD units to keep conservative Communist forces out of the Central Committee building, the telegraph office, and the radio and TV center), by swiftly firing the local KGB chairman and appointing as his successor a supporter of the Movement for Democratic Reform, and by allying himself with Yeltsin in Moscow. Within days Akaev finished off the power of the Kirgiz Party, confiscating party buildings and banning party influence in workplaces; the coup de grâce was the ban on collecting dues.

In several cases, then, the coup acted as a catalyst—or “detonator”—for the consolidation of autocratic rule. Compromise on the division of power between the union and its constituent republics became less and less possible, though efforts to create an agreement on a new federal distribution of power continued, with Yeltsin’s cooperation.

It was only in November that Yeltsin came to demand that the new Union of Sovereign States not be a state, as Gorbachev insisted, but a loose confederation. Nonetheless, on November 14 he agreed to Gorbachev’s formula of a “confederative democratic state,” i.e., a state in which largely independent units would recognize a central state power that would be accepted as such in international law. Gorbachev had insisted that such a formula was the prerequisite for effective reform; without it, the possibility increased that the Soviet Union would follow the disastrous example of Yugoslavia. On November 25 a new draft was prepared, repeating the pre-coup definition of the Union of Sovereign States as a “confederative democratic state” with its own citizenship, territory, integrated armed forces, and government. 14

  1. 1

    The New York Times, December 11, 1991.

  2. 2

    Breaking Up Is Hard, But Let’s Not Freak Out,” by George Melloan, The Wall Street Journal, December 16, 1991.

  3. 3

    For a particularly nasty example of the former, see the characteristically entitled “Goodbye, Gorby, And Good Riddance,” by Vladimir Bukovsky, Op-Ed page, The New York Times December 18, 1991, A29. For a view that makes the success of the Commonwealth depend on appropriate Western aid, see “Help Russia Now,” by Anders Aslund and Richard Layard, Op-Ed page, The New York Times, December 5, 1991.

  4. 4

    At any given moment [in history] there are alternatives, and to dismiss them…because they were not realized is to take the reality out of the situation.” H.R. Trevor-Roper, History and Imagination (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1980), p. 2.

  5. 5

    Leonid Gordon, “In Anticipation of the Shock,” Moskovskie novosti, October 13, 1991. It should be noted that these figures constitute the average responses, and that in some areas proor anti-Putsch sentiment varied by as much as 70 percent.

  6. 6

    Intervista a Boris Eltsin,” by Enrico Franceschini, la Repubblica, December 17, 1991, p. 2.

  7. 7

    Izvestia, August 23, 1991.

  8. 8

    Izvestia, August 30, 1991.

  9. 9

    Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 16, 1991.

  10. 10

    Literaturnaia gazeta, November 6, 1991.

  11. 11

    Izvestia, December 11, 1991.

  12. 12

    I feel that the committee that has just been formed has already made quite a few mistakes. Well, that’s normal, because it is a new formation; it has not found itself yet. But can this be corrected? I think it can.” (“Ukraine: Kravchuk’s Role,” by Roman Solchanyk, Report on the USSR, Munich, September 6, 1991, p. 48.) I was told by a Ukrainian scholar in Kiev, a firm believer in Ukrainian independence, that Kravchuk was concerned less about popular pressure than about the consequences of the ban on the Soviet and Russian Communist parties immediately after the coup. In order to avoid having Moscow’s anti-Communist officials descend upon Kiev, Kravchuk, with the approval of his party, proclaimed Ukrainian independence (subject to a referendum) on August 25, which caused one deputy in the Supreme Soviet “to burst into tears—she didn’t want independence to come from these scoundrels.” A few days later, Kravchuk banned the Communist Party.

  13. 13

    See “Uncoupled Train Car,” by Valery Vyzhutovich, Izvestia, September 13, p. 3. Translation in Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Vol. XVIII, No. 37 (1991), p. 14.

  14. 14

    Izvestia, August 15, 1991.

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