Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin, moving swiftly Thursday to bring Soviet rule to an end, issued decrees abolishing the Soviet Foreign and Interior ministries and taking over the Kremlin and most other central government agencies on Russian territory.
So sweeping were Yeltsin’s decrees--dramatic moves to consolidate his power--that apparently only two Soviet ministries, Defense and Nuclear Energy, still remain independent of his Russian Federation government. Even the Kremlin offices of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, as well as the presidency’s bank accounts and other property, were included in Yeltsin’s takeover.
Yeltsin directed the Russian Foreign Ministry to assume the functions of its Soviet counterpart. He created a new Russian Ministry of Security and Internal Affairs to take over the duties of the old Soviet Interior Ministry and of the KGB.
The Russian president is now moving with such boldness that the influential newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta called his actions a “state coup d’etat” in a front-page commentary Thursday.
Yeltsin’s partners in the new Commonwealth of Independent States urged caution in dismantling the old Soviet agencies before new ones have been created to assume their duties.
Gorbachev, speaking on Soviet television, also warned against hastiness and excessive zeal. He said the transition from the Soviet Union to the new commonwealth, which is being formed by the Russian Federation and other Soviet republics, is entering the “decisive” stage and its viability depends on an orderly, constitutional process.
“The era of the Soviet Union is drawing to an end, and the first page of the Commonwealth of Independent States is opening up,” Gorbachev said. “We have to think over all this thoroughly so that it develops within a constitutional framework.”
Although Gorbachev had agreed with Yeltsin earlier this week that the Soviet Union should cease its existence by Dec. 31, yielding to the commonwealth, Yeltsin’s decrees took Soviet officials by surprise, as Russian representatives moved into their offices overnight to inventory property and seal files.
The Supreme Soviet, the country’s legislature, is scheduled to meet next Tuesday in what may be its final session; Gorbachev would like it to ratify the agreements founding the commonwealth and thus maintain a semblance of constitutionality.
But Gorbachev’s distress was clear. “We must begin the new epoch in the country’s history in a worthy manner, observing the norms of legitimacy,” he wrote in a six-page letter to republic leaders. “One of the reasons for the historical misfortunes of our peoples is crude interventions, destructive coups, the use of force in the course of society’s development.”
Yeltsin’s preemptive decrees were only the latest moves, however, in a relentless campaign by the Russian president over the past month to bring a swift, sure end to “Soviet power” and to quickly launch the commonwealth. It will be led by Russia by virtue of its size, population, wealth and military might.
While Gorbachev again was speaking Thursday of a smooth, orderly transition, even a constitutional transfer of power, Yeltsin was simply stripping away power from the old Soviet state in moves that neither Gorbachev nor anyone else could resist.
“What is happening now on the territory of a greater part of the old Soviet Union is certainly a state coup committed by democratic or democratically elected authorities of the republics--first of all, of Russia,” Vitaly Tretyakov, editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, wrote in his commentary. But he noted that “there is nothing terrible about the words coup d’etat ,” if they bring democracy.
“The empire has finally collapsed, and independent states have emerged from its ruins,” he continued. “Central administrative bodies have been almost totally eliminated. Those that have remained because of their indispensability for any state . . . have been transferred, often without the consent of the central government or those who used to head them, to the jurisdiction of the republics.
“Finally,” he added, “the official head of the former state, the president of the Soviet Union, has been effectively stripped of all power, also without his consent. All these are indisputable characteristics of a state coup. . . . “
But Yeltsin may have acted so abruptly on Thursday to preempt discussion of the fate of the old central ministries when he meets this weekend with leaders of nine other republics that plan to join the commonwealth and that might want to continue some ministries, or, at least, win a share of their property.
Yeltsin had resented not only the central ministries’ power, which he felt had blocked crucial economic reforms, but he also saw them siphoning precious resources from Russia to poorer republics--notably those in Central Asia that are now seeking to join the commonwealth.
Yet Yeltsin, characteristically, issued his decrees early Thursday without explanation and with only the barest justification--that they were in accord with the decisions by Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, the three Slavic republics of the old Soviet Union, to found the commonwealth, which has been ratified by their parliaments.
He and most of his top aides then left for a two-day visit to Rome.
Among the casualties of the Yeltsin sweep on Thursday was Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who had rejoined Gorbachev’s team only last month. He had been in the political wilderness for almost a year, opposing conservatives who effectively captured and held the Soviet government much of that time.
“The ministry is being dissolved,” Vitaly I. Churkin, the ministry’s chief spokesman and one of Shevardnadze’s closest aides, commented. “We worked and worked, and now we will not work. What can our attitude to this be? These are the political processes under way in our country.
“We are bureaucrats and clerks, and we act as the politicians decide,” he said. “The politicians decided there is no more Soviet Union, and, henceforth, there will be no union agencies. What else can be said?”
Gorbachev, ironically, had just appointed a new Soviet ambassador to Ireland.
In his letter to republic leaders, the Soviet president called on the commonwealth to retain key elements of a central government, including a single military command and a common foreign policy, saying: “With full responsibility for and knowledge of the country’s integrated military-strategic security system, I can say that the slightest attempt to break up this system is fraught with danger for the world.”
A “collective command,” like that proposed for the strategic forces and 27,000 nuclear warheads the commonwealth will inherit, is “absurd,” he said. “And I cannot imagine how it is possible to maintain a common strategic defense without a minimum of common foreign policy.”
Listing other elements, including a “commonwealth citizenship” as a basic measure to ensure human rights throughout the member states, Gorbachev warned that the effort “will not be easy--there should be no illusions here. It is clear that society has not yet realized that this is a turning point of colossal dimensions, affecting fundamental aspects of people’s lives.”
Gorbachev also supported a proposal from Kazakhstan, one of the five Central Asian republics seeking to join the commonwealth, that the new grouping be named the “Commonwealth of Independent Euro-Asian States,” recalling that this had been first suggested by the late Andrei D. Sakharov, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
In an interview published here Thursday, Gorbachev said he will assess the results of the republic leaders’ meeting this weekend in Alma-Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan in Central Asia, then decide his future role.
Although Yeltsin has virtually ruled out any position for Gorbachev in the commonwealth, suggestions came from officials in Belarus that he might serve as its “secretary general.”