PERSPECTIVE ON THE SOVIET UNION : Drums Beat for a Soviet Watergate : Gorbachev will almost certainly emerge from the investigation of the coup thoroughly discredited.


Following the failed coup in Moscow, many influential Westerners have reverted to form by calling on Boris Yeltsin to form a partnership with Mikhail Gorbachev. In effect, Yeltsin is being asked to use his enormously enhanced authority to help Gorbachev not only remain in office but regain power.

Why Yeltsin would agree to share power with a man who has consistently tried to intimidate and humiliate him is hard to fathom. Nor is it easy to understand how such a power-sharing arrangement would serve Western interests. Yeltsin, after all, has long been staunchly committed to precisely the sorts of political and economic reforms that the West has unsuccessfully urged on the still defiantly Communist Gorbachev. What is most disturbing about such continuing devotion to Gorbachev, however, is that it suggests a basic misunderstanding of the profound changes that have taken place in the Soviet Union.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Aug. 29, 1991 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 29, 1991 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 7 Column 5 Op Ed Desk 3 inches; 90 words Type of Material: Correction
In editing Wednesday’s article by Jeremy R. Azrael, the author’s statement that Gorbachev was probably party to covering up evidence of his complicity in events that set the stage for the Moscow coup was altered. The erroneous result was a contention that Gorbachev was probably directly implicated in the coup itself. The author actually considers the latter contention far-fetched.
Another change blurred the author’s distinction between the Gorbachev administration’s legitimate military intervention to prevent ethnic pogroms and its illegitimate use of force against unarmed civilians demonstrating on behalf of democracy.

Having demonstrated their willingness and ability to stand up to the guns of August, Russia’s democrats are now determined to consolidate their victory by establishing a truly democratic system. One sign of this determination is the effort democratic leaders are making to calm popular passions and forestall an indiscriminate witch hunt against partisans and supporters of the ancien regime . Another is the insistence of leading democrats that judicial proceedings against the instigators of the coup be accompanied and, if need be, superseded by legislative hearings on the coup’s political underpinnings and antecedents.

It is in this connection that a number of Russian legislators have begun collecting information about how Congress handled the Watergate investigation and dealt with the issue of impeachment. What these legislators have in mind is a prompt and exhaustive investigation by select committees of the Supreme Soviet not only of the details of the recent coup but of earlier political misconduct by its key participants, almost all of whom were senior members of Gorbachev’s Cabinet. Among other things, public hearings are planned on responsibility for the Tbilisi massacre of April, 1989; the bloody “police action” in Vilnius in January, 1991, and the continuing attacks on Lithuanian border posts thereafter; and the deployment of armed forces in and around Moscow in March, 1991, in what in retrospect looks like an aborted precursor of the August coup.


If these hearings proceed according to plan, Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, Dmitri T. Yazov and all the will be questioned not only about their own roles in these attempts to stifle the growth of democracy in the Soviet Union but about the role of President Gorbachev. Their answers (given under grants of immunity borrowed from U.S. practice) will almost certainly cast serious doubt on Gorbachev’s repeated claims that he was not involved in decisions to employ force against unarmed civilians.

Their answers may even show that Gorbachev had agreed to consider introducing a nationwide state of emergency after his scheduled Aug. 19 return from his Crimean vacation. On this hypothesis, Gorbachev’s detention was the result of a decision by his principal lieutenants to take the plunge without him, thereby avoiding the danger that he would continue to equivocate or suddenly get cold feet. Although speculation to this effect has been widely ridiculed in the West, there is circumstantial evidence suggesting that Gorbachev may, in fact, have been unexpectedly hoist by his own petard.

Absent the discovery of a smoking gun, Gorbachev, who will presumably be invited or summoned to testify on his own behalf, may be able to escape impeachment. At the very least, however, the evidence will show that he failed to use his presidential power to prevent the repeated use of force against the republics. It will probably also show that Gorbachev was party to a subsequent cover-up of evidence about what actually happened during the coup. In consequence, Gorbachev will almost certainly emerge from the hearings thoroughly--and justifiably--discredited.

Were Yeltsin to try to prevent this outcome by interfering with a legitimate and, in this case, indispensable democratic process, he would seriously discredit himself in the eyes of many of his staunchest supports. Consequently, it would be highly imprudent for Yeltsin to make Gorbachev his partner, even in the unlikely event that he wished to do so. More realistically, Yeltsin is likely to add his authoritative voice to what will soon be a rapidly growing chorus of voices calling for Gorbachev’s immediate resignation.