September 13, 1991

The coup and after

Print edition : February 06, 2015

August 23, 1991: Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Parliament a day after Gorbachev returned to Moscow following the failed coup. Photo: PIKO/AFP

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. They clearly did not expect the common people to defy the state of emergency declared in Moscow and Leningrad and put up determined opposition to the coup. They ignored the fact that the changes savoured by the nation during the six years of Gorbachev’s perestroika had made people fearless and defiant.

The putschists’ fatal mistake was their failure to arrest Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s 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 Kryuchkov’s 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 Russia’s President Yeltsin. The three army divisions rushed into Moscow by the junta also informed Yeltsin that they would not make any move against his headquarters, while some of their units took up positions at the Russian Parliament to defend it against possible attack.

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. The first—and only—confrontation between troops and civilians in the Soviet capital occurred on the second night of the coup, when two young men were crushed by an armoured personnel carrier attempting to clear roadblocks set up by protesters, and a third one was shot by a panicky officer.

As time went by the putschists developed differences, apparently over the use of force, and Premier Pavlov chickened out of the “emergency committee” citing high blood pressure. The State of Emergency Committee was rapidly losing the initiative. The leaders of most Soviet republics condemned the coup and voiced their solidarity with Yeltsin. Responding to Yeltsin’s appeal for a political strike, some major coal mines and industrial plants in Russia downed tools in protest against the coup. The emergency regime also failed to win international recognition, with most Western nations demanding the reinstatement of President Gorbachev.

On the morning of August 21, the third day of the coup, when Yeltsin managed to convene an emergency session of the Russian Parliament, it became clear that the putschists no longer controlled the situation. Later, the same day, the Defence Ministry ordered the troops out of Moscow, while five members of the junta left the capital by plane, apparently to plead for mercy with President Gorbachev, held incommunicado at his summer retreat in the Crimea on the Black Sea since the beginning of the coup. However, the President refused to see them and waited for Yeltsin’s envoys who arrived a little over an hour later to bring Gorbachev back to Moscow and arrest the putschists. The other members of the junta were rounded up the following day with the exception of Interior Minister Boris Pugo, who committed suicide. The takeover was foiled.

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union has been the first victim of the big events. Though the coup was carried out by a narrow group of top Soviet state leaders, they drew inspiration and encouragement from the Communist Party’s hard-line leadership. Most of them were members of the party’s central committee, which had been the main vehicle of opposition to Gorbachev’s reforms. 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.

The fate of the other federal power structures—the government and Parliament—was also sealed. When it turned out that almost all members of the Cabinet of Ministers had backed the putsch, Gorbachev disbanded it, handing over control over the Soviet economy to an interim committee headed by Russia’s Premier, Ivan Silayev, and comprising representatives from other Soviet republics. Though the key Ministries of Defence, Home and Foreign Affairs and the KGB survived, their heads were replaced with men who had stayed loyal to the President through the coup attempt. The KGB has lost its own armed formations and its influence on Soviet politics is likely to be drastically reduced.

The federal Parliament was also plunged into crisis. Its supreme standing body, the presidium, had failed to denounce the coup, while its chairman, Anatoly Lukyanov, was accused of complicity with the “putschists”. Parliament is under strong pressure to disband itself, but is likely to continue until the fate of the Soviet federation has been decided.

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. By contrast, the position of the Soviet President, who suffered a severe shock of seeing practically his entire team “betray” him, has been seriously weakened. Gorbachev is being held partially responsible for the putsch. He has been accused of not pushing reforms hard enough and compromising too much with his “conservative opponents”. He also ignored numerous warnings of the impending showdown.

Over the past few months, the Communist press had unleashed an active campaign against Gorbachev’s reforms and the proposed new Union Treaty, issuing barely disguised appeals to replace the President. In May, Premier Pavlov, backed by the Defence and Interior Ministers and the KGB head, demanded that Parliament grant him emergency powers ostensibly to cope with the economic crisis, and he could well have succeeded had it not been for personal interference by the President. But probably the clearest sign that something was brewing was the murder of seven Customs officers in Lithuania coinciding with the visit of U.S. President George Bush to Moscow. It was a brazen provocation, blamed on the KGB and designed to show that Gorbachev did not control the situation in the country. Yet, Gorbachev did not deem these ominous signals serious enough to cancel his two-week holiday before the planned signing of the Union Treaty by six republics, including Russia, on August 20. Another three republics were expected to sign the treaty later this year.

The putschists struck on August 19. Doubtlessly, it was one of their main goals to prevent the conclusion of the new Union Treaty under which the Centre would yield much of its power to the republics. Ironically, they achieved this goal despite the failure of their power bid: the putsch dramatically strengthened separatist tendencies among the republics and there is almost no chance now the Union Treaty will be signed, at least not the version agreed upon by the nine republics on the eve of the putsch.

Within days of the coup attempt the Ukraine and Byelorussia, two of the biggest Soviet republics, proclaimed their state independence. Moldova followed suit. Earlier the coup had prompted Estonia and Latvia to join Lithuania in announcing their immediate independence from the Soviet Union, scrapping a transitional period. But whereas Moldova and the three Baltic republics had long set their sights on independence, the Ukraine and Byelorussia had been regarded as would-be key members of the overhauled Soviet federation. Without them the Union loses much of its meaning. The putsch has not only finally buried the old Soviet empire, but killed any prospect for the Soviet Union to survive as a single state.

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