The coup and after

Published : Jan 15, 2010 00:00 IST

THE early euphoria over the defeat of the August 19 reactionary coup in the Soviet Union that overthrew President Mikhail Gorbachev and sought to reverse his reforms is giving way to an analysis of the dramatic events and their possible consequences for the nation.

Though the coup was crushed in less than three days, the danger it posed to the burgeoning Soviet democracy should not be underestimated. The putschists comprised the top Soviet leadership Vice-President Gennady Yanayev, Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, Defence Minister Dmitry Yazov, KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov and Interior Minister Boris Pugo. They had all the power in their hands: apart from the four-million-strong Soviet army, the KGB had its own armed forces motorised divisions, airborne units and assault troops and so did the Interior Ministry. This huge force deployed all over the country is controlled from the Kremlin, whereas the republics have almost no military formations of their own. Yet, the coup failed. Why?

There are several reasons for this. Not only did Gorbachev refuse to bow to the putschists demands to hand over power to the Vice-President, but the eight-member State of Emergency Committee made some gross mistakes and miscalculations. Closely following the pattern of action that was used to depose Nikita Khrushchev in 1964, they thought all they had to do to succeed was to isolate President Gorbachev, who was vacationing on the Black Sea, and declare him seriously ill and physically unable to perform his presidential duties.

The putschists fatal mistake was their failure to arrest Boris Yeltsin, Russias popular leader, before he had time to set up his resistance headquarters in the Russian Parliament in Moscow, declaring the coup unconstitutional and illegal. Though the State of Emergency Committee banned Opposition newspapers and independent radio stations, it surprisingly did not cut telephone lines, enabling Yeltsin to send out his appeals to the provinces and coordinate opposition to the putsch.

The masterminds of the coup overestimated their ability to control the army and the security forces. The elite Alpha assault unit of the KGB, which was to storm the Russian Parliament and arrest Yeltsin and his men on the very first day of the takeover, reportedly refused to obey Kryuchkovs orders. The putschists lost precious time, and as the coup entered its second day a split in the armed forces became apparent. The commanders-in-chief of the Soviet air force and the airborne troops refused to recognise the junta and pledged their loyalty to Soviet President Gorbachev and Russias President Yeltsin.

Meanwhile, thousands of Muscovites gathered at the Russian Parliament to carry on a round-the-clock vigil. The general mood was defiant and people were prepared to fight the tanks with their bare hands.

It is still hard to gauge all the possible consequences of the abortive putsch for the Soviet Union. However, the main outcome is obvious: The emergency takeover, which was a desperate attempt by entrenched political forces to turn back the clock of history, has triggered a mass process of the type that earlier triumphed in eastern Europe. This revolution has not only swept away the old socialist power structures but is likely to transform the unitary Soviet state into a confederation of sovereign nations.

Gorbachev, who, following the defeat of the coup, tried to defend his efforts to reform the Communist Party and purge the conservatives from it, soon gave up as angry crowds in Moscow pulled down monuments to the heroes of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and threatened to storm the Communist Party headquarters. Gorbachev resigned as General Secretary of the party and called on its central committee to disband itself, which it promptly did.

Clearly, the most momentous outcome of the coup has been a dramatic shift in the balance of power in the Soviet Union in favour of the republics, above all Russia, whose President, Yeltsin, is today in a position to influence greatly decisions taken by Gorbachev.

Over the past few months the Communist press had unleashed an active campaign against Gorbachevs reforms and the proposed new Union Treaty, issuing barely disguised appeals to replace the President. One can feel almost physically that the drama of the putsch has charged Soviet society with tremendous energy. It is only to be hoped that this energy can be channelled to spur on democratic reforms rather than throw the country into chaos.

Vladimir Radyuhin sent this specially to Frontline expressing an intellectual view strongly opposed to the politics and thinking behind the three-day takeover of power and strongly favouring the post-coup changes in the system. The article ends on a note of warning against the forces of chaos.

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