Overnight, Mikhail Gorbachev, who sometimes seemed to be everywhere at once, became the man who wasn't there. The world's gaze shifted to the man who was there, Russian Republic President Boris N. Yeltsin. Thrust suddenly onto center stage, Yeltsin gave the political performance of a lifetime.
Once dismissed by the West as a buffoon and a boozer, Yeltsin has emerged as a hero in the battle for political and economic reform in the Soviet Union--and as a key player in any future power-sharing arrangement. Rallying the people of Moscow to a stirring defense of the Russian parliament, he routed the Soviet Old Guard that had made one last, desperate bid to hang on to its power and its privileges.
It was an extraordinary victory for democracy. In three days that shook the world, a curiously inept coup led by an eight-man junta of hard-liners fizzled. Drawn from the classic pillars of Soviet society--the Communist Party, the secret police, and the military--the junta ordered Gorbachev seized at his vacation dacha in the Crimea on Aug. 19. Gorbachev, they claimed, was too ill to run the country. Tank columns and KGB officers quickly headed for Baltic capitals, for Leningrad, for Moscow. Their mission: Arrest democratically elected reform leaders, stamp out independent media, and introduce neo-Stalinist diktats to turn back the clock.
HUMAN CHAINS. People power stopped them cold. Led by Yeltsin, a defiant Russian population refused to follow the reactionaries' script for them. As the world watched and markets trembled, Muscovites stood their ground against oncoming tanks and formed human chains to blockade Yeltsin's office building. Entire regiments of troops sided with reformers. Even as tough special military units loyal to the junta seized television stations and government buildings in Riga and Tallinn, the Baltic states declared independence. For all the chaos, the death toll, three protestors in Moscow and one in Latvia, was remarkably light.
Indeed, as coups go, the putsch seems in retrospect more slapstick than sinister. The State Committee for the State of Emergency, as the junta called itself, turned out to be a feuding cabal that history might dub the Keystone Kommisars. Rumored assaults on Yeltsin's seat of power never occurred. Within 24 hours of Gorbachev's ouster, coup plotter Valentin Pavlov, Gorbachev's Prime Minister, caught Moscow's strange bug and bowed out of the committee. Rumors flew that spy master Vladimir A. Kryuchkov and Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov had flown the coup, leaving only its leader, a bland Communist apparatchik named Gennady Yanayev, and several little-known deputies. As a suddenly healthy and free Gorbachev prepared to fly back to Moscow on Aug. 21, the plotters were nowhere to be found.
So swift was the collapse that Soviets and foreigners alike wondered if it had been orchestrated as some kind of complex sting operation to weed out hard-line opponents of reform. That's implausible, even by the convoluted standards of Soviet politics. Too many troops moved and tanks rolled for the three-day putsch to be seen as political theater.
Moments after it was clear that the coup had collapsed, President Bush managed to telephone Gorbachev at his hostage dacha and get assurances that all was well. In less than 72 hours, Bush's new world order had died and been brought back to life. But back in Kennebunkport, Me., a relieved Bush resisted the temptation for euphoria. "It's a good day for the U. S.-Soviet relationship," he said. "You can't put freedom and democracy back in the box." Supportive words, but hardly Presidential cartwheels. That's because Bush is acutely aware that Yeltsin's triumph does little to clarify the lines of power in the Soviet Union. Moreover, the Red Army, which largely sat out the coup, remains a divided but formidable force that could still mount a challenge to popularly elected officials.
NEW STRENGTH. At the moment, no elected official is more popular than Yeltsin, swept to the Russian Presidency with 60% of the vote. He claims to have interim control of the army. That's a bit hard to swallow, but regardless, Bush and other Western leaders now must deal seriously with Yeltsin. Before the coup, they believed that Gorbachev had vast power but little support, while Yeltsin had great support but only token power. Now, that equation has been irrevocably altered. Many Western leaders will come to see him as the most potent authority figure inside the Soviet Union. Dealing with both Yeltsin and Gorbachev, without tilting too much to one or the other, will be the ultimate test of Bush's Soviet diplomacy.
The botched coup is also a watershed in Soviet history. It could deal a finishing blow to the fading Communist Party, which is wracked by mass defections and thin finances. It could change forever the role of the traditional security services, primarily the KGB, by demonstrating that the old police state just doesn't have the muscle or will to do the bidding of the nomenklatura, Soviet society's favored few. In discrediting the hard-liners and party hacks, the coup's failure offers an unprecedented chance to sweep away party and bureaucratic resistance to reform. "This was the Soviet Union's Prague, its Budapest, its Warsaw" says Clifford G. Gaddy, a Soviet expert at the Brookings Institution.
Gorbachev is now transformed into the junior partner of his on-again, off-again ally. Yeltsin will now have far more say in the political fate of the Soviet Union and its collapsing economy. That's because the coup's failure assures the signing of a new treaty of the union by nine republics and the central government in Moscow. The treaty is so important that it dictated the coup's timing. Gorbachev and Yeltsin, along with Nursultan Nazarbaev, President of Kazakhstan, were to sign it on Aug. 20. The coup was launched the day before to strangle the pact at birth.
Now, with the treaty all but ratified, the door is open to a vastly restructured Soviet Union. In it, at least 9 of the country's 15 diverse republics will be sovereign states controlling their own economies and natural resources. Republics, not the Kremlin, will collect taxes and divvy up shares to the central government, whose role will be vastly reduced. The treaty also calls for direct, multiparty presidential elections, which could occur within a year or two.
Even though the coup underlines the political instability that makes foreign investors increasingly queasy about the Soviet Union, its failure could clear up the business atmosphere in the long term. The new distribution of power outlined by the union treaty will be a major reason. "Everybody from the West is going to be dealing not with the Soviet Union but with the republics," predicts Dwayne O. Andreas, chairman of Archer Daniels Midland Co., a major exporter of U. S. grain to the Soviet Union. "You'll have the Soviet Union casting a glow on what you're doing, but you'll be dealing with the republics."
'THANK YOU.' At the same time, the coup's outcome is sparking new calls for increased Western aid and advice for the Soviet Union. At the London economic summit in July, Bush jawboned the allies into resisting Gorbachev's pleas for massive economic aid. Now, Bush and his colleagues will have a hard time resisting the clamor for a more openhanded policy. Mindful of Gorbachev and Yeltsin's brush with disaster, pro-aid Europeans--led by France's Francois Mitterrand--will likely insist that the close call in Moscow underscores the need for a multibillion-dollar Western aid package. Without such a "thank you," the pro-aid forces contend, the reform government is still vulnerable.
The European Community, meanwhile, is hastening to bring Eastern Europe into the fold. It cut through a heap of red tape to put associate EC membership for Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary on a fast track. Why the rush? "Things changed on Monday," says a French Foreign Ministry official. At the same time, Europeans and Americans alike have rediscovered the charms of military security. Relying on benign structures such as the 35-nation Conference on Security & Cooperation in Europe clearly is not enough. "At this stage of dissolution, a superpower like the Soviet Union is a dangerous animal," warns Michael Sturmer, head of the Institute for International Politics & Security in Ebenhausen, Germany.
The Stalinist dinosaurs who took their last floundering steps in Moscow on Aug. 19 may have hatched their plot as far back as last fall. At that time, a group of military industrialists, KGB officials, and military officers confronted Gorbachev with an ultimatum: Drop a radical 500-day plan for economic reform that would have cut their budgets and influence. One of the instigators was Alexander Tizyakov, who had been chief executive of the Kalinin Machine Building Plant in Sverdlovsk, which makes strategic missiles. In October, he became head of a lobbying group for industries with strong links to the centrally planned economy. One of his associates was Oleg Baklanov, another strategic missile builder, who had supervised the defense industry as a party Central Committee secretary since 1986. Both men would join in the Gang of Eight.
Gorbachev agreed to drop the 500-day plan, touching off a wave of resignations from his liberal team. The chief defector: Eduard Shevardnadze, the Foreign Minister whose diplomacy had dazzled Western leaders. When he resigned his post, he stunned the world with warnings of a fascist coup.
By January, Gorbachev had formed a new and much more conservative government. Three of his appointees later became coup plotters. The junta leader turned out to be Yanayev, a career apparatchik and dedicated Communist. It took Gorbachev several tries to win parliamentary approval for Yanayev to be his vice-president. But Gorbachev won out, saying: "I want to work with a man I can trust completely."
To replace his Prime Minister, Gorbachev picked former Finance Minister Valentin Pavlov, an economist who also later plotted the coup. A tough former KGB officer named Boris Pugo became Interior Minister, in control of the national police. Pugo quickly built up a force of specially trained soldiers to crack down on nationalist strife and independence movements from the Baltics to the Caucasus. The troops went to work in rolling crackdowns in the Baltics in January, killing 14. Yeltsin called for Gorbachev's resignation.
PRESSURE. Archconservatives also had reason to be unhappy with Gorbachev. They blamed him for the increasing economic chaos. Soviet gross national product slipped 10% in the past six months, and oil exports dropped by nearly half in a year. The Soviet foreign credit rating, once AAA, had slid to that of a banana republic while foreign debt soared to $64 billion.
Meanwhile, the Communist Party, the hard-liners' power base, was eroding. In three years, party membership has slid from 19 million to 15 million. The party was 1 billion rubles in the red. The growing weakness of the Communists was underscored when Yeltsin drubbed party candidates in his direct election as Russian President in June.
In July, pressure built for a coup. Tizyakov and several other hard-liners published an appeal in the conservative newspaper Sovetskaya Rossiya calling for a military takeover and the creation of a national salvation front.
Early on the morning of Aug. 19, a local contingent of the KGB in the Crimea sealed off Gorbachev's dacha, and the Soviet air force blocked the nearby runway where Gorbachev's airplane and helicopter stood. Gorbachev and several aides were placed under house arrest. The eight-member state committee issued statements that they had seized power, and within hours, tanks began to roll in Moscow and the Baltics.
Moscow quickly became a city under siege. Opponents of the coup raised barricades of tramcars, buses, and construction material across the streets leading up to the parliament, formed a volunteer defense force of 1,500, and hunkered down for a series of overnight vigils.
Some army units were deployed to seal off Moscow's huge squares. But protestors quickly converged on the Russian parliament building, and on Aug. 20, as many as 150,000 listened there to speeches by Shevardnadze, radical economist Stanislav Shatalin, and Yelena Bonner, the widow of Nobel prizewinning physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov. At one point, standing and listening, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the poet, commented: "It's a tragic day, but also a happy one. The Russian people are demonstrating that they will fight any attempt to return to Stalinism."
Tension built through the day. It peaked on the night of Aug. 20, when 100 tanks began heading toward the Russian parliament. "People want to fight," said Alisa, a 20-year-old student. "Yanayev can't just come and say, `Hello, I'm your new President,' and push Gorbachev and all the new beginnings aside."
With remarkable discipline, thousands of Russians linked arms and stood prepared to stop columns of tanks advancing through the rainy night of Aug. 20. The staccato sound of shooting broke out near the parliament, spooking the crowd. A few blocks away, three civilians were killed as crowds beat back a column of seven tanks rolling along Moscow's ring road. But quiet soon returned. By next morning, it was clear that the coup was unraveling.
The moment of truth came at 5 a.m. on Aug. 21, when thousands waited nervously as a division of KGB paratroops approached the city along Mozhaiskoe Highway. After talking to Russian parliamentary deputies, they turned around before reaching the parliament building. Five hours later, Yeltsin informed the Russian parliament that members of the emergency committee were heading for the airport and would be detained. Incredibly, Gorbachev was declared back in power by 9 p.m. the same night.
UNGUARDED. The plotters' biggest mistake had been misjudging the Soviet army. To implement its state of emergency, they had to rely on the military to fulfill their orders. But almost from the start, a split appeared in the army ranks, all the way up to the highest levels. "Just because someone wears a military uniform does not mean he will support the army to take action against its own people," declared General Konstantin Kobets, a legislator in the Russian Republic, on the first day of the coup. Yeltsin appointed him Russia's Defense Minister.
In the end, observes Mario Lemme, a Soviet expert at the Aspen Institute in Berlin, "these people were true old-guard and totally out of touch with reality. Almost all classic coup paraphernalia was absent," he notes. Roads, bridges, and transport terminals weren't sealed off and telephone-switching stations and power stations weren't guarded. Already, toward the end of the first day, it became clear that the coup masters had neither the guns nor the people.