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Yeltsin's Russia: Myths and Reality

By Lilia Shevtsova
Carnegie Endowment of International Peace. 320 pp. $19.95
Friday, November 12, 1999

Chapter One: Events That Determined the End of the Soviet Union

The most important development influencing the outcome of Gorbachev's perestroika and its effects on the new Russian state was the weakening of the Communist Party. The most direct challenge to the Party's leadership came from electoral reform. For the first time in Soviet history, deputies were chosen by popular mandate. In the 1989-90 elections to the new republican legislatures, many senior party officials were defeated at the ballot box. For a party whose power resulted in a guaranteed monopoly, it was the beginning of the end.

Gorbachev, afraid of losing control over events, tried to restore a pivotal element of state authority by introducing the institution of the presidency on March 15, 1990. This came too late in the game, however; it could not halt the defection of the republics, where the consolidation of a new national political class was well under way. Moreover, an attempt to construct a viable presidency without the support of a strong party, of society, or even of the state bureaucracy was doomed to produce only a powerless institution.

The 1990 elections to the new legislatures in the republics provided a strong stimulus to the formation of new ethnic political elites and gave them legitimacy. The newly elected elites, even those that included representatives of the communist establishment, were perceived as nationalist and even as democratic. This fact was a severe blow to the prestige of the all-Union authorities and Gorbachev himself, who lacked the same legitimacy and were unwilling to take the risk of holding a general election: Gorbachev, after all, had been elected president in March 1990 not by the people, but only by the Congress of People's Deputies of the USSR.

Other events accelerated the disintegration. In 1989 the Baltic republics' declarations of independence had served as a powerful example to other republics. Even so, the Union might have continued to exist indefinitely in a stagnant form. A more serious blow was the falling-out between the leaders in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev and the central authorities in Moscow. Without the Baltics and Ukraine, the Soviet Union would no longer be predominantly Slavic but would increasingly have an Asian face.

The fault line between Kiev and Gorbachev's all-Union center had begun to widen after the unprecedented emergence of a political class in Russia itself. This group, united around Boris Yeltsin, acquired considerable legitimacy and support through the process of democratic elections and because it had a genuinely charismatic leader. On June 12, 1990, the new Russian parliament issued a "Declaration of Russia's Sovereignty." The First Congress of People's Deputies of the Russian Federation asserted Russia's "complete authority ... over all questions relating to state and public life with the exception of those which it voluntarily hands over to USSR jurisdiction." This declaration and the introduction of the Russian presidency on June 1991 clearly dissociated the Russian state from the Soviet Union and stimulated the sovereign aspirations of other Union republics.

The views of the Russian reformers were ambivalent and varied on the issue of the future of the Soviet Union. At first they supported national movements that were trying to form a Union-wide reformist coalition. When it became clear that their partners wanted independence rather than reform, their attitude toward national self-determination began to change. Russian reformers were concerned that this might be directed not only against the USSR but against Russia itself, undermining Russia's territorial integrity as much as that of the USSR.

The rise of Boris Yeltsin as a political personality symbolized the changes taking place in Soviet society. Yeltsin had come to prominence under the communist system and was a part of the old ruling class. Under Gorbachev, he had become the very personification of the antiestablishment forces. Gorbachev himself had pushed his former competitor out of the circle of power, thus turning Yeltsin into an opposition leader. In February 1988 Yeltsin was ousted from the Politburo. In December 1988 he joined the democratic opposition. In March 1989 he was elected a deputy to the new Soviet legislature, the Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union, where he joined the democratic Interregional Group (150 deputies), becoming one of its co-chairmen (with Andrei Sakharov, Gavriil Popov, Victor Palm, and Yuri Afanasyev). In May 1990 he became chairman of the newly elected Russian legislature, the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation, and in June 1991 he was elected president of the Russian Federation. Yeltsin's combination of Communist Party background and opposition stance enabled him to achieve what no dissident, even one as influential as Andrei Sakharov, had managed. The fusion of the energies of the democratic movement with the ambitions of the Russian republic elite and the charisma of Yeltsin had a devastating result for the old Soviet center.

Yeltsin, buoyed by the support of an array of social and political groups weary of Gorbachev, began to attack the Soviet president. "Perestroika's global strategy had run smack into its inability to make practical reforms, that is, break things down and build them up anew." Yeltsin later wrote. "Gorbachev's reliance on moral leadership and liberal ideologists had not panned out. Despite his expectations, the magic wand didn't work. The system simply would not change, just like that, for the sake of its health." In February 1991 he publicly demanded that Gorbachev resign. Gorbachev's cohorts tried to silence Yeltsin, who responded, as he later said, "You're afraid of Yeltsin? Well, then, you'll get that very Yeltsin you fear!"

Gorbachev had to choose sides, and this was not an easy thing to do. Proceeding with further reforms and liberalization would mean devolution of his own power to the republics and further disintegration of the Soviet Union; for Gorbachev, this was unacceptable. However, attempting to preserve the Soviet Union meant reversing the democratic process and siding with the orthodox communists, which was also unacceptable. Gorbachev could not maneuver endlessly between these choices, and both sides were relentlessly attacking him. The democrats criticized him for his indecisiveness, while the hard-liners accused him of betrayal.

Late in the spring of 1991, therefore, Gorbachev proposed a new Union treaty to be signed by all of the Soviet republics. The arrangement would give the republics unprecedented independence while at the same time preserving the coordinating all-Union bodies. He convened the heads of the republics at a government dacha at Novo-Ogaryovo, outside Moscow, in negotiations that became known as the Novo-Ogaryovo process. The initiative met with a surprisingly positive response from nearly all of the leaders (except those in the Baltics). Even Yeltsin, grudgingly, signed the agreement reached there.

In June and July 1991, Yeltsin's relations with Gorbachev briefly became easier. "Gorbachev and I felt unmistakably that our interests finally coincided," wrote Yeltsin. "Gorbachev preserved his seniority and I preserved my independence. It was an ideal settlement for both of us. We began to meet at length unofficially. Sometimes [Kazakstan's president] Nursultan Nazarbayev also took part in these confidential meetings." The three leaders agreed that, under the new Union treaty, Gorbachev would take the role of mediator as chairman of the coordinating body, Yeltsin would have absolute independence as the leader of the most powerful republic, and Nazarbayev would become prime minister of the new Union.

The signing of the new Union treaty was scheduled for August 20, immediately after Gorbachev's return from his vacation at Foros in Crimea. As Yeltsin wrote, "Much would have been different if what we agreed upon as a threesome could have been put into effect. History would have taken a different course altogether." He said, "I now look back on these meetings without embarrassment and even with regret. What an opportunity was lost! Perhaps it would have been independence for the republics only on paper, not in reality, and Russia's clash with the central Soviet government would have been inevitable in any event. [But] our departure from the USSR would have been far more peaceful and less painful" if the Union treaty had been implemented.

However, as Aristotle said, "Revolutions are not about trifles, but they spring from trifles." During their discussions, the three leaders had decided that Gorbachev's entourage would be replaced after the treaty was signed. Tapes of these conversations, later found in the possession of some of Gorbachev's cohorts, may well have triggered the events of August 1991 that rendered the Novo-Ogaryovo agreements moot.

On August 19, 1991, a group of orthodox communist members of Gorbachev's circle attempted to save the Soviet Union by introducing a state of emergency. Immediately after the failure of the coup, during a session of the Russian parliament on August 23, Yeltsin signed a decree dissolving the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. One may ask how a representative of Russia alone could claim to dissolve the Party for the entire Soviet Union; during this period, legal means seemed inadequate and revolutionary instruments necessary to dismantle the old structures. Unfortunately, Yeltsin seemed quickly to become accustomed to this revolutionary style of rule. On the next day Yeltsin recognized the independence of the three Baltic states, and Ukraine's Supreme Soviet adopted a declaration of independence. The events of August 1991 were the final, crushing blow to the Soviet Union.

The August coup changed relations between Gorbachev and Yeltsin radically, leaving Yeltsin the principal winner. "From August 1991 until the moment of Gorbachev's resignation in December of that year, we had approximately eight meetings," wrote Yeltsin. "I don't know if Gorbachev realized how changed our relations were by then. I had told him that the coup had taught us a bitter lesson, and therefore I had to insist that he not make any personnel decisions without first obtaining my consent. He looked at me intently, with the expression of a person backed into a corner, but I had no other alternative. Everything depended on my taking a position of brutal consistency."

Gorbachev seemed not to understand at first that the failed coup had changed everything. He attempted to proceed with the Union treaty, making concessions that would have been unthinkable before August. He conceded that the future Union could become a confederation of independent states. But in the republics, the ruling elites no longer needed coordinating structures; they reacted immediately with declarations of independence, scheduling their own presidential elections. They all dreamed of elevating their status and joining the United Nations. This was the end of the Novo-Ogaryovo process; nobody wanted to sign a Union treaty.

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© 1999 Lilia Shevtsova

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