If you can't engineer a successful coup, you can hardly be expected to engineer a successful economy. But if the Soviet hard-liners who ever so briefly ousted Mikhail Gorbachev could have held on just a bit longer, they might have gotten some pragmatic economic advice from a despot who really knew how run a coup: retired Chilean general Augusto Pinochet.

When Pinochet's coup toppled the elected government of Marxist President Salvador Allende in 1973, the Chilean economy was in an inflationary shambles. Though Pinochet's regime stripped people of their civil rights, it aggressively introduced a series of free-market economic reforms that made Chile's economy the most successful in South America. In 1989, the last year of Pinochet's rule, Chile's gross national product grew an astonishing 10 percent.

Measured strictly by the numbers, Chile qualifies as an "economic miracle" on par with Korea and Singapore -- two other countries whose regimes are far more authoritarian than democratic but whose economies are closer to Adam Smith than Karl Marx. It may make Western economists uneasy, but history reveals that economically successful nations can have free markets without free people. Democratic reforms are not essential to explosive economic growth.

"There's no question that there can be rapid economic growth under a dictatorship," acknowledges Mancur Olson, a University of Maryland economics professor who specializes in economic development questions. "There have been dictatorships that understood and respected market forces."

Nevertheless, for Russians more interested in bread to eat than a vote to cast, the ruthlessly efficient pragmatism of the Pinochet model may ultimately prove more appealing than the still elusive economic promises of glasnost and perestroika. Indeed, "there have been ominous references to that from the right," says Judy Shelton, an expert on the Soviet economy and a senior research fellow at the Stanford, Calif.-based Hoover Institution.

Clearly, this drab bunch of right-wingers steeped in Marxist-Leninist lore had neither the savvy nor the support to seize the Pinochet option. What's certain, however, is that economics -- not politics -- is at the core of the Soviet Union's massive problems. The slow-motion collapse of the Soviet economy -- with its frustrating lines and relentless scarcity -- eroded Gorbachev's popular support. Yeltsin's appeal comes less from his charisma than his assertion that democratic reforms are key to economic prosperity.

Whatever the aftermath of this particular coup, there will have to be drastic economic reforms in the Soviet Union. The painful possibility remains that the Soviet Union could enjoy years of tremendous economic expansion without a corresponding growth of political and civil rights.

"If {the coup's} overriding concern was to spark growth, then Pinochet's Chile did offer valuable lessons," says Sebastian Edwards, the Henry Ford II professor of international business at the University of California at Los Angeles who has studied the Pinochet regime and consulted to the Republic of Korea, Indonesia and other nations on economic development. In Pinochet's Chile, ruthless autocracy and economic growth went hand in hand.

"These people had a near-religious zeal that they were right, and they went ahead without compromising on anything," Edwards says. "They had an absolute disregard -- a contempt -- for public opinion."

That zealousness gave the system "a sense of continuity," Edwards says. "Unlike the situation in the Soviet Union, which was 'one step forward, two steps sideways,' the Chileans quickly made it clear that property rights were defined in a precise fashion. The changes were so abrupt that they created their own momentum."

What's more, Edwards notes, Pinochet's Chile introduced the initial phases of economic reform "with no support at all from the rest of the world." Given the Soviet ambivalence about the West, that precedent of economic growth independent of the West could be alluring.

Of course, unlike Chile, the Soviet Union really has no market culture of shopkeepers, merchants or entrepreneurs to rely upon. Nevertheless, the real issue the Soviet Union may now be facing is whether the necessary economic reforms will come as a result of democratic initiatives or from the iron fist of a Soviet Pinochet.

Hoover's Shelton, who has done consulting for Yeltsin's reform movement, observes that the aspiring dictators lacked the sophistication to look at market mechanisms to boost economic growth. "I think they thought they could bribe, coerce or intimidate people into providing goods," she asserts. "I wouldn't have been surprised if they had approached Eastern Europe and offered the economic bribe of subsidized oil in exchange for a flow of food and consumer goods."

However, Shelton ruefully notes, even in the reform movement there seems to be a tacit willingness to trade democratic procedures for economic growth. "They want a five-year plan for capitalism," Shelton says. "Even with the best of intentions, they say that we're going to 'make' capitalism work instead of 'let' it work."

The bottom line is that, even with the failure of this coup, the Soviet Union seems destined for a more authoritarian approach to capitalism -- one that is much closer to Pinochet's Chile and Park's Korea than Eisenhower's America or Thatcher's Britain. Will the democrats "democratically" phase in economic reforms? Or, in the heady flush of victory, will they try to impose them by fiat? Indeed, it's not out of the question that the reformers will ultimately find it necessary to become more authoritarian in order to implement drastic economic changes.

Should that happen, just how comfortable will the West be with an economically vibrant, nationalistic and authoritarian Russia?

Michael Schrage is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.