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Can Stability Rise From Ashes of the Coup? : Soviet Union: Downward forces may be beyond control. Western assistance and some form of union offer best hope.

<i> Igor Malashenko is assistant spokesman for President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. </i>

On the eve of the Aug. 19 coup, there was a near fatalistic sense of stability in the Soviet Union. There was a fair chance that the unsigned Union Treaty could contain the country’s centrifugal trends and ethnic conflicts.

Democratic institutions were weak, but the Communist Party’s grip on society was daily loosening. The economic crisis was deepening, but there was a virtual consensus that the centrally planned economy was not to be preserved and that development of the market economy was the only way out.

Then the abortive coup destabilized the country and unleashed the forces that may well be beyond the control of the politicians.

Collapse of the Communist Party paved the way for many long-overdue reforms, but it also created a power vacuum. There was even the possibility of a return to the one-party system if the democratic movement were converted into “The Party.” Since Soviet political culture lacks basic democratic traditions, the triumph of democracy in Russia may easily turn into another defeat.

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The coup immediately forced the republics to protect themselves by declaring independence and distancing themselves as far as possible from Moscow. The defeat of the coup was primarily the work of Russia and its leaders. As a result, their status was much enhanced. The Russians did not hesitate to seize the spoils of war and take over many sectors of the central administration. Their government’s self-assertiveness compelled the other republics to shield their interests by all available means.

There is little hope that the disintegration of the centrally planned economy will be matched by growing productivity of small businesses and privatized state enterprises. Many of the Soviet entrepreneurs are pessimistic about their future in the country and will try to work their way West. Economic disruption may reach catastrophic proportions this winter, thus burying any hope for political stability.

The situation, however, is not hopeless. Many positive trends evident during the pre-coup period remain at work; indeed, the coup may accelerate their fruition.

Communism as an ideology had been dead for quite a while. The coup only hastened the Communist Party’s day of collapse. Democrats dominate the political stage, but opposition is not going to disappear. Defeated conservatives evoke little public sympathy, but the people are aware of the perils of a witch hunt and appreciate the importance of political pluralism. After six years of perestroika and glasnost , there is a fair chance that democracy in Russia will not degenerate into one-party dictatorship, as happened in 1917.

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The coup killed the Union Treaty, but the treaty could not solve the problems of redistributing power and resources in the Soviet Union. Bargaining between the republics and central authority will take years. Some hidden problems became apparent in the aftermath of the coup, including Russia’s dissatisfaction with its status under the proposed treaty.

Still, the four largest republics--Russia, Ukraine, Byelorussia and Kazakhstan--are probably too integrated economically and intertwined ethnically to drift too far apart from each other. Non-Russian republics are also aware that even if the much disliked central authority were to disappear totally, the vacuum would be filled mostly by Russia. To them, some form of union is thus not that bad after all.

But the collapse of the Soviet economy probably cannot be averted by the efforts of the Soviet people alone, even if the most radical schemes of privatization were implemented. With the centrally planned economy falling apart, Western assistance is not just desirable--it is indispensable. The Soviet Union lacks both the know-how and financial resources to transition to a workable economic system rapidly. Timing is crucial: Hungry and frustrated people do not have much patience; ethnic conflicts and civil war are not the shortest routes to stability.

Western assistance will not bring economic changes immediately. But it may demonstrate to the Soviet citizens that the West does care about democracy and stability in the Soviet Union. It may also remind the republics that it makes sense to stay together to get out from under the ruins of the communist system.

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