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

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

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.

The military establishment, and still more the KGB and MVD, have been shaken by the rebellion by their recent chiefs, and their own ambivalent roles in the coup. Nonetheless, these institutions are likely to be more disciplined executors of policy and less inclined under new leaders to be tempted again to mix extralegally in political affairs.

Little noted is the fact that two of the eight coup members were representatives of the Soviet military-industrial complex: Oleg D. Baklanov, who had been Gorbachev's deputy in the important Defense Committee, and Alexander T. Tizakov, another captain of military industry. Their fall will lead others in the military-industrial complex to be less open in opposition, but there will remain recalcitrance in implementing economic reform.

In the long run, the fact that this coup was attempted and failed will undoubtedly contribute to the furtherance of political and economic reform. Nonetheless, the formidable obstacles to economic reform remain, and neither Gorbachev nor Yeltsin has found a real solution. In addition, it is not yet clear whether Gorbachev has recognized the need to move yet further in giving power to the republics--nor that the leaders of the republics appreciate the appropriate powers to be exercised centrally (for example, in monetary policy).

President Bush took just the right stance in condemning the unconstitutional attempted coup, and making clear that the withholding of assistance was predicated on democratic and economic reform. At the same time, he did not close off the possibility that we might have had to deal with a new government if the coup had succeeded. While American and other outside support was not the main factor in defeating the coup, it helped on the margin. Bush has now restored programs earlier under way.

American policy of dealing both with Gorbachev and the Soviet Union, and with Yeltsin and the Russian and other republics, remains valid. Its application will, however, differ as the republics gain greater real authority. Yeltsin's enhanced stature also is a factor, but the key remains the actual division of authority between the Union and the republics.

As the Soviet Union moves forward in reform, and especially as it accelerates that process, the United States and other Western countries will also have to face again the question of what we can and should do to support the process. This will not be easy, but the future stability of the Soviet Union and the republics may depend on some critical Western assistance.

While welcoming what the Russian people have done in defeating this internal political coup, we in the West may have a more active part to play in supporting them and the other peoples of the Soviet Union in dealing with their next crisis--a crisis of transition in reforming their economic system.

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