Boris Yeltsin
Boris Yeltsin; drawing by David Levine


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

Unlike the system envisaged in the August 15 draft, however, the new Union proposed on November 25 would have no separate constitution, and its formerly exclusive powers would be replaced by multilateral treaties between it and the participating states on economic coordination, defence and security issues, foreign policy, scientific and technical programs, human rights, ecology, transportation, communications, space, crime, education and culture, and the financing of the Union itself. A new article gave member states the right to create their own armies, with the Union government in charge of an integrated armed force “under centralized control.” To placate Russian fears of secessionist tendencies among the autonomous republics within the Russian federation, they were no longer designated as parties to the treaty. (This was strikingly similar to Gorbachev’s insistence that too many concessions to the constituent republics would lead to the disintegration of the Soviet Union.)

Although the treaty shifted real as well as symbolic power from the center to the republics, the draft was not initialed and the champagne ceremony planned for November 25 was canceled at the last moment. Instead, the states involved decided to submit the treaty draft to their respective parliaments for approval. Yeltsin’s objections were among the main factors that caused the representatives at the November 25 meeting not to initial the new treaty. According to one participant he put forward a whole new set of amendments, although what they called for remains unclear.15

What caused this shifting back and forth? Gennadi Burbulis, deputy chairman of the Russian republic and now the second most powerful man in the Russian government, exerted heavy pressure against the treaty. A lecturer on Marxism-Leninism and founder, in 1988, of the “Discussion Tribune” in Sverdlovsk, a political club in support of democratization, Burbulis has consistently urged that Russia, and not a new union, be declared the lawful successor (pravopreyemnik) to the USSR. In addition, Ukraine’s growing opposition to the treaty after the coup made revisions necessary, especially if Yeltsin was to have a central role in the new relationship. “What, after all, is the Union without Ukraine?” he asked on Soviet television four days later.


Had there been no coup, would Ukraine have signed the treaty?

Until August, only a few extreme nationalist organizations wanted both independence and secession from the union. Even Rukh, the Ukrainian organization that led the struggle for sovereignty, was, as late as last spring, not ready to advocate statehood without ties to the other Soviet republics. In the referendum that was held last March 17, over 80 percent of Ukrainian citizens agreed that Ukraine “should be part of a Union of Sovereign States on the principles of the declaration on state sovereignty of Ukraine” (the latter formally proclaimed by the Ukrainian republic’s Supreme Soviet in July 1990). In the same referendum, in response to a rather different question—“Do you consider necessary the preservation of the USSR as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics, in which the rights and freedoms of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?”—over 70 percent voted affirmatively. It is by no means clear that either the members of the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet who drew up the questions for the Ukrainian referendum, or the citizens who supported it overwhelmingly, knew exactly what such a union would entail.

During the summer, Ukraine participated in several discussions of econmic ties between members of the union, but put off signing the Union Treaty until after it adopted its new constitution and elected a president, both scheduled for early December. While the Ukraine might have pulled out of the Union after other republics, including the Russian republic, had approved the new Union Treaty—as they were going to do on August 20—there is no indication that this would have happened. What the Ukrainian government was after was more power for itself and less for the central government. As Kravchuk put it in July, Ukraine wanted first to produce its own draft of a treaty and then settle the differences between the two documents, all of which “requires time.”16 In view of Gorbachev’s (and Yeltsin’s) eagerness to secure Ukraine’s cooperation, those differences would have most likely been resolved.

The situation changed radically, as I suggested, after the Putsch. 17 For most Ukrainian citizens (including many of the 12 million Russians and about 3 million other non-Ukrainians, out of a total population of 52 million), hostility toward Moscow was now compounded by contempt for the plotters and for the Union itself—a union so shaky that a squalid plot could take place within its highest circles. If before the coup perhaps only a small percentage of Ukrainians were in favor of complete independence, now the sentiment for breaking with Moscow altogether became overwhelming. On December 1, almost 90 percent of the voters said “yes” to independence. Even in Crimea and the Donbass, where the population is predominantly non-Ukrainian, the votes for independence were over 60 and 70 percent respectively. No one wanted to be ruled from Moscow.18

“Moscow” was not only “Soviet,” and not only the “center”—it also was and is Russian. And this, too, helps to explain the December 1 landslide. Although the ties between Russians and Ukrainians are so intimate as to blur national distinctions (half of all the Ukrainians in Ukraine, for instance, speak only Russian, as do all the Ukrainians living outside Ukraine), relations between the two people have often been marked by tension if not outright hostility even before the middle of the nineteenth century, when the Ukrainians, like so many other ethnic groups in Eastern Europe, became drawn to nationalism. For many Ukrainians, the Russians to the East, much as the Poles to the West, were not only national but, even more, class enemies—noblemen and landowners lording it over the downtrodden but proud peasant masses of the “borderland.”19

Russians, for their part, have tended to treat the Ukrainians with condescension (often referring to them in the past as “Little Russians”) or with disdain. The tendency persists. A Russian intelligent, an otherwise sophisticated man, asked me how anyone could support “independence for those lovers of Petlura and Bandera,” referring respectively to the first and only president of the Ukrainian republic in 1918 and 1919, whose armies committed extensive atrocities against Jews, and to a Ukrainian partisan leader who collaborated with the Nazis. A young woman teacher in Kiev, herself half-Ukrainian, half-Russian, thought the idea of Ukrainian statehood “ridiculous.” She expressed sympathy for Ukrainian cultural autonomy, agreeing with her father, a Ukrainian historian, that it was “scandalous” that until recently most elementary and high-school classes were taught in Russian, that Kharkov, the republic’s second largest city, still lacks a single Ukrainian-language school, and that three quarters of Kiev’s children still attend only Russian-language schools.

That they did so, she said, was not merely a reflection of a natural desire of parents to send their children to schools that give them a better chance to succeed in life, but the consequence of a deliberate policy of Russification.20 It was only fair that Ukrainians have greater administrative autonomy. “But couldn’t all these problems,” she said, “be resolved without cutting ourselves off from Russia entirely, and stationing customs control guards along our borders?”

Perhaps they could before August 22. But not since. Ukrainians, already suspicious of Russia’s desire to make Moscow the center of its own empire, were angered and worried by the appointment of Russian officials to posts in the central administration immediately after the coup and by a flurry of statements coming from Yeltsin’s assistants. When Pavel Voshchanov, Yeltsin’s press secretary, asserted the Russian federation had the right to raise questions about its borders with republics declaring themselves independent, the alarmed Ukrainian reaction prompted Yeltsin to send a delegation, including Anatoli Sobchak, to meet with Ukrainian political leaders to reassure them that Russia was not claiming any such right.

Tensions were also exacerbated by a story appearing in Moscow’s Nezavisimaya gazeta (“Independent Newspaper”), to the effect that Russia was contemplating a “nuclear strike” on the Ukraine if the latter insisted on retaining all its nuclear weapons. Such well-known “liberals” as Oleg Rumyantsev, a prominent social democrat, and Sergei Stankevitch, then deputy-mayor of Moscow, as well as Gennadi Burbulis and Russlan Khasbulatov, both members of Yeltsin’s entourage, made statements that smacked of what used to be referred to as “Great Russian chauvinism.” Burbulis, for instance, characterized Russia as “the only republic that could and must become the rightful heir to the [Soviet] Union and all of its structures.”21

A spokesman for Rukh commented:

Once more, just as it did seventy-two years ago, an attempt at a Ukrainian rebirth calls forth high-handed rejection from certain newly democratized leaders of Russia—victors over the Red putschists. Once more, illusions of messianism, once more the “Big Brother” syndrome, imperial aspirations regarding one’s neighbors.22

Yeltsin issued a clarification denying any desire to change Russia’s borders and the others fell silent. But as the eminent sociologist Yuri Levada told me in Moscow, “even if you withdraw, your credibility suffers.” In Kiev, the historian Vladimir Yevtukh was still bothered by these statements three months later: “This amounts to pressure, and it is stupid and counter-productive.” Despite a number of apparently cooperative meetings between Russians and Ukrainians, including the meeting first establishing a Commonwealth in early December, tensions remain, and there are many disagreements on issues ranging from economic ties to control of the Black Sea fleet, which includes some of the USSR’s most powerful naval forces.

The presence of Russians and more than one hundred other nationalities in Ukraine is likely to bedevil it for years to come. In Russia, the independence of the Ukraine, complete with its own armed forces, currency, and foreign policy, is resented by groups both on the left and on the right. Nikolai Travkin heads the Russian Democratic Party, which, with 50,000 members, is the largest political organization in Russia. Travkin believes that the Russians in Crimea (since 1954 part of Ukraine) are “bound to become restive.” When they do, “Kravchuk will send troops into the Crimea much as Yeltsin did in the case of the Chechen-Ingush republic.” In fact, Yeltsin’s order to send in troops was annulled by the Russian Parliament and they were never deployed.23 But Travkin approved of Yeltsin’s decision. On the day we spoke, in late November, his party and two other minor political groups ostentatiously bolted the Democratic Russia coalition, on the grounds that it was insufficiently firm in protecting the territorial integrity of Russia.

On the right, the most dangerous threat to amicable relations between Ukraine and the Russians, and indeed to the survival of democracy in Russia, is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal Democratic Party, who last June ran for president of Russia, winning seven million votes, the third largest total after Yeltsin and Gorbachev’s former prime minister of the USSR, Nikolai Ryzhkov. A figure both odious and comical, Zhirinovsky, whose patronymic is Volfovich (from Volf), is eager to be seen as a fullblooded ethnic Russian. His mother was a “pure Russian,” he claims, while his father, who died when Vladimir was two, “might have been Ukrainian or Polish.” (Hence the quip that “according to Zhirinovsky, his mother was Russian and his father a lawyer.”)

Zhirinovsky advocates “an authoritarian regime,” the suspension of all political parties, and the scuttling of market reforms. He is also fiercely xenophobic. (Once, when asked whether he wasn’t concerned about “following lines that parallel Hitler,” he replied that he was “not following any parallels. Adolf was just an illiterate corporal, while I graduated from two higher educational institutions and speak four languages.”24 ) In Moscow as late as December 22 he and the right-wing army colonel Viktor Alksnis led a demonstration of several thousand people demanding that the Soviet Union be retained and that all steps leading to “capitalism” be rescinded.

In Ukraine, the Rukh organization as well as the major political parties are aware of the potential of virulent nationalism and intolerance, and have gone to considerable lengths to reassure the minorities, such as Russians, Tatars, Armenians, Poles, and others. They have also benefited from the experience of the Baltic countries, and from Gorbachev’s disastrous failure to pay proper heed to national aspirations in the former USSR. The problem of the status of the Ukrainian language—particularly sticky in a country where half of the population doesn’t speak it—seems to have been settled amicably. According to a law passed in late 1989, Ukrainian will be the republic’s official language, but other languages will be accorded “governmental status” in those areas where they are spoken. The Crimean Tatars are being settled in their old territories from which they had been exiled during the war, and other ethnic groups in that area, particularly the Russians, have been assured they would have autonomy.

The most impressive accomplishment, for which Rukh is primarily responsible, is to assure the rights of Ukraine’s large Jewish community. Kiev, once a flourishing center of Yiddish scholarship and culture, now has several Jewish newspapers (though not in Yiddish—few people under sixty speak it), theatrical groups, clubs, political organizations (mostly Zionist), and schools.

Oleksandr Burakovski, chairman of the Rukh’s Council on Nationalities and himself involved in Jewish activities, told me that many of Rukh’s leaders were painfully aware of Ukraine’s appalling record of anti-Semitism: more than 80,000 Jews perished in pogroms between 1918 and 1919; tens of thousands of Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis during the war, with many of them serving in the SS extermination squads; and in the late 1960s and 1970s some of the most repulsive anti-Jewish tracts appeared in Kiev. Rukh, he said, is determined to rid the country of this ugly legacy. Above all, in his words, Ukraine “wants to be recognized as a true modern country, and this cannot be accomplished with the stain of anti-Semitism upon it, and without the unity of all ethnic groups on its territory.” He pointed out that Ukraine doesn’t have a single newspaper or journal comparable to the poisonously anti-Semitic and xenophobic Russian publications such as Molodaya gvardiia, Sovremennik, and Moskva.

This is not to say that anti-Semitism does not continue to thrive, or that the record of the Ukrainian democrats is all that clean. In particular, some of the latter have attempted to exonerate Simon Petlura, under whose administration some of the most savage killings following World War I were committed, on the grounds that he wasn’t “personally” anti-Semitic—a claim which aside from its dubious morality is also false, as many studies have shown.25

Despite the Ukrainian government’s desire to deal with legitimate grievances of the minorities, the future remains clouded. In an atmosphere of unrestrained “sovereignty,” passions may heat up, and ethnic demands may intensify. On September 4, 1991, the Crimean Supreme Soviet declared the “state sovereignty” of the Crimea as a constituent part of the Ukraine, but ever since, the movement for Crimean self-determination—in effect secession—has had strong support. Several civic groups are pressing for a referendum to determine Crimea’s status—whether it should remain within Ukraine or be united with the Russian republic. A leader of the “Party of Democratic Rebirth,” a mildly social democratic group organized on the same principles as the “Democratic Platform” (later Republican) Party in Russia, told me in Kiev that the policy of “inundating Crimea with Ukrainian books” and official documents in Ukrainian tends to be seen by some Russians as an “attempt at forced Ukrainization.” Last October, the Ukrainian legislature passed a law stipulating three to seven years of deprivation of freedom for acts “aimed at dismembering the Ukraine or changing its state system”—if not an ominous move, then at least a gratuitous one.


I have tried to suggest that the failed coup was a major factor in the breakup of the Soviet Union. Had the new union come into existence on August 19, with considerable powers vested in the individual republics, but with a central government exercising control over matters such as coordination of economic policies (“a unified economic space”) and the armed forces (including nuclear weapons), some of the critical problems now facing the new Commonwealth could have been ameliorated or deferred. Now that the Commonwealth of Independent States is, formally at least, a fait accompli, the problems should be squarely faced.

First, and astonishingly, the agreement signed by the eleven republics of the Commonwealth (CIS) said absolutely nothing about economic policies, although without an explicit mechanism of coordination the Commonwealth would in all likelihood come apart, and many of the republics would sink into penury and chaos. Subsequently some beginning steps have been taken toward coordinating economic policies, but the differences between the economic structures of the republics are enormous. Some are one-crop economies, with Uzbekistan, for example, growing mostly cotton; others are rich in natural resources but depend on subsidies they have been receiving annually from Russia (in 1988, for instance, to the tune of 64 billion rubles) in order to maintain their standard of living and social stability. Such subsidies may no longer be forthcoming.

The eminent Russian economist Nikolai Shmelev is bitterly aware of the dangers:

Nobody should have any illusions: No republic, including the Baltic states, will survive on its own without a rich and kind uncle ready to pay all of its accounts for at least ten to fifteen years. Is there such an uncle? They say that there is: America, the Common Market, Scandinavia, and, finally, their own diaspora dispersed throughout the world. Lies. There is no such uncle in the world today and no diaspora to pay annual subsidies to the republics to cover multibillion deficits from the unavoidable transition to world prices and hard currency clearing in trade with Russia. They will give money for a church, a hospital, and perhaps even for a university…. But supporting someone in this stormy world of ours…a world in which entire continents still live in inhuman poverty? Come now, you must be joking, gentlemen!26

Reading such comments, it is well to remember that during the last two years at least six economic programs were put forward by the Gorbachev administration and none was carried out. But the economic reforms on which Russia is now embarking will inevitably create appalling strains, and pressures on its neighbors to follow suit. Kazakhstan’s president, for example, announced in early November that the Russian reform program, especially price liberalization, would force Kazakhstan to lift price controls much sooner than planned; the Belarussians said much the same. If prices increase in some republics but not in others, economic warfare—complete with trade barriers and export limitations—seems likely. Moreover, price increases alone will not lure produce and products into places where they are scarce so long as the currency remains worthless, and it is not yet clear which of the various monetary reform schemes proposed will prevail.27

Yeltsin has replaced one economic “tsar” and one set of proposals with another (though he acidly criticized Gorbachev precisely for following that pattern). One of his most useful proposals is to allow peasants to own their own land. Still, in the main he is following a line similar to the “shock therapy” introduced in Poland two years ago on the advice of Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard. In Poland this policy has led to the creation of many profitable private businesses, but it has already caused a drop of nearly 40 percent in production, enormous hardships and social turmoil, and helped to bring about the collapse of two governments.28 In Russia the results are bound to be much grimmer if, as seems likely, inflation rises and production falls.

Even more threatening than uncoordinated and impetuous economic plans are separatist passions, which have become more intense since August. The Tatars in their Autonomous Republic in Russia (Tatarstan) as well as other minorities in the Siberian Far East are heatedly debating the issue of independent status. In late November, for instance, Ingush voters overwhelmingly (97.4 percent) supported the formation of a separate Ingush republic within the Russian federation. The Chechens’ triumph in defying the Russian government is likely to whet the appetites of others for independence. Yeltsin is determined to uphold the territorial integrity of his republic. To some ethnic groups, this is nothing but Russian imperialism.

Without a centrally controlled military force to keep them in check, ethnic clashes are likely to increase. Since the removal of Soviet troops from Nagorno-Karabakh, the bloody conflict between the Azeris and Armenians has become bloodier. Gorbachev’s warnings of incipient civil wars—dismissed by his critics at home and such commentators as Vladimir Bukovsky in the West as a refusal to relinquish personal power—may yet prove to be chillingly correct.

In Alma Ata on December 21, the eleven republics pledged “to build democratic states ruled by law.” Where power is vested in autocrats who run the single party in the state (with or without the word “Communist” in its name), such pledges can hardly be taken seriously. They become positively suspect when accompanied by the sycophantic assurances given to Secretary of State Baker that the republics will base their policies (such as building “capitalism”) on Baker’s “five principles” guiding the United States in its relations with the new Commonwealth (such as respect for “democracy” and “human rights”). Nor is the appetite for authoritarian rule restricted to some of the Central Asian countries or to the non-Commonwealth Georgia.

A year and a half ago I described, in these pages, a meeting of “Moscow Tribune,” a liberal discussion club founded by Sakharov, which convened to consider Gorbachev’s demand for special presidential powers.29 Last November, the very same club convened to discuss Yeltsin’s demands for additional powers to enact a package of radical economic reforms and to limit political activity. In late October Yeltsin had asked for extraordinary powers to rule by decree until the end of the following year, even if such powers contravened Soviet and Russian laws. He also requested the power to ban any election in the Russian federation until the end of next year. It was an uncanny experience: one person after another rose to denounce Yeltsin for his “authoritarian tendencies” and to warn against “uncritical support” of the Russian president. Both denunciations and warnings echoed what I had heard eighteen months before about Gorbachev.

Yeltsin had aroused the opposition of some of his formerly enthusiastic democratic supporters by creating an executive secretariat responsible for vetting all administrative decisions without any coordination with the State Council, the body charged by the Russian Parliament with formulating all basic policies of the Russian republic. As head of the new administrative staff Yeltsin appointed Yuri Petrov, a Party apparatchik who had worked with Yeltsin in Sverdlovsk and was then ambassador to Cuba. Petrov, in turn, appointed other Sverdlovsk friends to various positions on his staff. 30

Members of the State Council were not only excluded from the policy-making process, but for a time they, as well as other democratic deputies and even his own vice-president, could not get through to see Yeltsin. Finally, after a meeting with the radical historian and chairman of Democratic Russia Yuri Afanasyev, Yeltsin slightly appeased his liberal “critical supporters,” as they call themselves, by promising to meet regularly with representatives of Democratic Russia and to curb the powers of Petrov and his associates. He has also given more authority to “young Turks” such as Yegor Gaidar; the deputy premier in charge of economic ministries.

Some of Yeltsin’s actions after the Alma Ata meeting of December 21, all smacking of his love of power, while petty, were gratuitously abrasive. On December 25, right after Gorbachev’s resignation speech, Yeltsin issued a decree privatizing Gorbachev’s state-owned apartment in Moscow, and two days later he moved into Gorbachev’s office without giving the former Soviet president a chance to clean it out first.31 On the same day, Yeltsin (by presidential decree) removed his own vice-president, Aleksandr Rutskoi, from the chairmanship of five special Russian executive committees in what was widely construed as punishment for Rutskoi’s criticism of some of Yeltsin’s policies. Rutskoi had criticized Yeltsin’s ban on the Communist Party, but in particular the liberalization of retail prices, on the ground that it would lead to the impoverishment of most of the population, and to “unpredictable social consequences.”

Similar charges of autocratic behavior have been made against the mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoli Sobchak, and the Moscow mayor, Gavriil Popov—in the case of the latter, at least, with considerable justification. Force of habit and the absence of democratic political traditions were almost bound to breed authoritarian behavior, and they may not yet pose a serious threat to the survival of democratic institutions in Russia and other republics. But authoritarianism and dictatorship feed on economic and political instability. The Putsch of last August, while it resulted in the emergence of new democratic institutions in many parts of the former Soviet Union, has also accelerated the breakdown of nearly everything else—from public medicine to road maintenance, food production and distribution, refuse collection, transport, and police protection. To some political observers, such as the deputy chief editor of Moscow News, Stepan Kiselyov, “the viruses of totalitarianism are vigorously multiplying.” Another, Andronik Migranian, told me that he fully expected Yeltsin to dissolve the parliament if he finds it recalcitrant.

Such predictions should be taken with much skepticism. The democratic institutions spawned by Gorbachev’s reforms—and we ought not forget that they were, indeed, his reforms—have thus far proved remarkably resilient in the European republics, if less so in Central Asia.32 Many of the problems I have described here may be resolved, or mitigated. Some would be unavoidable under any circumstances. But the least that can be said is that what might have been more easily accomplished through a commonly agreed upon and regulated process may now become more unmanageable. The road to Minsk presents so many hurdles that some of those who have set out on it may well be tempted to turn back, even if it is too late.

January 2, 1992

This Issue

January 30, 1992