How The Coup's Collapse Moves Moscow Closer To The West

"If you try to jump across an abyss and you don't make it," Mikhail Gorbachev once dryly noted, "no one ever comments later about how far you jumped." The spectacular failure of the hard-liners' power grab gives the Soviet leader a second chance to complete his leap toward democracy and a free market--with crucial backing from President of the Russian Republic Boris N. Yeltsin.

Freed of resistance by Kremlin conservatives, Gorbachev also seems to have a clear path toward a more active Soviet foreign policy, including deeper arms cuts and expanded cooperation with Washington. While the proposed new union treaty would shift some powers from the central government to the republics, Gorbachev will hold sway over key areas of foreign policy and defense.

Even with hard-liners to placate, Gorbachev made a bold shift from Marxist cold-war strategy to cooperation with the West. In doing so, he has already transformed the world. By sweeping away the traditional ideological underpinnings of Soviet foreign policy, Gorbachev in just a few years ended the East-West conflict, shook the Soviet Union out of its historical isolation, and all but eliminated communism as an alternative to free-market economics the world over.

FREER HAND. Many of those changes are irreversible: Even when the coup leaders had a grasp on power, there was little prospect that they or any future Kremlin rulers could regain Moscow's former grip on Eastern Europe or mobilize client states around the globe once again under Marxism's tattered banner of bureaucratic dictatorship. And the coup's failure saved President Bush's new world order, which depends on active Soviet cooperation. The brief takeover in Moscow had clouded the prospect for Senate ratification of two treaties cutting conventional forces in Europe and superpower nuclear arsenals. Among the rebel Kremlin regime's first acts: a conciliatory letter to Saddam Hussein, who had urged the "Gang of Eight" to restore "balance" to the East-West power structure.

Instead, Bush may now be the beneficiary of an accelerated superpower effort to defuse tensions. If, as seems likely, the Communist Party, the KGB, and military hard-liners are thoroughly discredited, Gorbachev will have a freer hand in foreign policy. One result may be new momentum toward disarmament, instead of the lethargy that seemed likely to consign follow-on arms-control negotiations to the back burner after the July 31 signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. In foreign economic relations, however, the republics will have a much greater say than before. In effect, Gorbachev will have to negotiate with them on issues such as trade. That, in turn, will complicate economic ties with the West.

But even if the new political equation in Moscow prevents Gorbachev from making dramatic moves, his foreign policy has already done much to shape a less dangerous world. Although in Soviet domestic politics he tacked from left to right and even reversed course, Gorbachev ultimately lived up to his pledges of "new thinking" across the international agenda, from freeing Eastern Europe to cutting military forces. In doing so, he eventually won Western confidence--as no Soviet leader had done before. "Gorbachev transformed the world and also the world's perception of the Soviet Union," says Robert Legvold, a Soviet expert at Columbia University.

That confidence in Kremlin leadership would have been the first casualty of the Moscow coup. But even if the hard-liners had prevailed, they would have found it impossible to snatch back Gorbachev's gifts to the world. When Gorbachev let the Berlin Wall tumble in 1989, he signed away Eastern Europe forever, ending the dangerous division of Europe that was at the root of the cold war. Nor was it likely that Soviet hard-liners would have the resources to restart the superpower rivalry for hearts and minds in the Third World. "Gorbachev put in place the most profound strategic retreat in peacetime ever," says Robert E. Hunter, director of European studies at Washington's Center for Strategic International Studies.

Whether Gorbachev dismantled decades of Marxist-Leninist foreign policy by design or by default, historians may long debate. Either way, his effort to revive the crumbling Soviet economy by integrating it with the West set in motion basic shifts in the global power balance. By downgrading arms and elevating economic performance as the key to Soviet security, Gorbachev opened the way for arms-control deals on the West's terms. Paradoxically, while Gorbachev's half-hearted economic reforms were largely ineffectual, they were enough to expose the Soviet command economy's bankruptcy. The result: Free-market economics, in the thinking of world leaders and opinion shapers, is the only game in town.

OUSTING SADDAM. The effects are far-reaching. The Soviet Union pulled back from its quagmire in Afghanistan. Then, from Africa to Central America, Marxist class struggles and Soviet-backed wars of liberation began to give way to democratic elections. And Moscow's new emphasis on human rights released a flood of Jewish emigration. Warmer ties with Israel and less support for its former client Syria even paved the way for a joint U. S.-Soviet sponsored peace conference. Although the failed coup may have delayed a conference, originally planned for October, the agreement for direct talks between Israel and its neighbors "would not have been possible if radical forces in the Mideast had thought they could always rely on the Soviet Union," says Ilya Prizel, a Soviet expert at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

At the U. N., after decades in which Moscow's main aim was to checkmate the U. S., Gorbachev's turnaround has been breathtaking. In the Persian Gulf crisis, Moscow backed 12 U. S.-led resolutions, helping to oust its own client, Saddam Hussein, from Kuwait. Gorbachev's support made the war against Iraq possible--and breathed new life into the deadlocked U. N. Security Council.

Gorbachev hasn't succeeded everywhere. Notably, he hasn't made much headway in the 45-year-old impasse over Japan's demand for the return of four Soviet-occupied islands. But as Mikhail Gorbachev reclaims leadership of the Kremlin, the world joins him in a collective sigh of relief.

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