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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 36, August 27, 2011

August 19-21, 1991: Three Days that Changed the Course of World History in 20th Century

Friday 2 September 2011, by Arun Mohanty


Few other events of the 20th century have changed the course of world history so abruptly as the so-called coup of August 1991 in Moscow that changed the geopolitics of the modern world so profoundly and so quickly. Without going into the details of the coup attempt it can definitely be said that the so-called plot no doubt accelerated the disintegration of the Soviet Union; brought about the end of the Cold War; and changed the global correlation of forces abruptly and unexpectedly. The three major forces at work for shaping the reforms movement in the then Soviet Union at that point of time and stakeholders in the coup were Gorbachev, Yeltsin and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. All of them lament the disintegration of the Soviet Union and try to justify their stand, which should be a subject of objective analysis. Gorbachev is loud to claim that it is the coup attempt by the CPSU and separatist activities of Yeltsin that hastened the disintegration of the USSR, and it is they who should be held entirely responsible for the Soviet break-up. Yeltsin during his lifetime was vociferous in asserting that the Soviet Union under Gorbachev’s ill-conceived perestroika had led to the Soviet disintegration and he only acted to save Russia from disaster. The CPSU and their successors claim that the so-called coup in August 1991 was a desperate attempt to keep the country united.

Let us look at CPSU General Secretary Gorbachev’s argument that he wanted to keep the country integrated and unified through signing of a new Union Treaty on August 20, 1991 but the ‘communist coup attempt’ on August 19 followed by Yeltsin’s action in the aftermath of the coup brought about Soviet break-up. Gorbachev was really engaged in a process for keeping the Union state intact in a new form in the backdrop of strong centrifugal tendencies across the country, known as the Novo-ogoryovo process, named after his Moscow suburb country-house where the republican leaders used to gather for drafting the Union Treaty. But a cursory look at the Novo-ogoryovo process clearly demonstrates that the republican bosses constantly demanded fresh concessions from the federal centre each time after a new Union Treaty was drafted. There was absolutely no guarantee that the republicans leaders would have accepted the last draft Union Treaty that Gorbachev had proposed to them in July-August of 1991, scheduled to be signed on August 20, 1991. Interestingly, Gorbachev did not disclose the contents of the latest draft of the Union Treaty for the press and broad public nor did he plan to place it for discussion in the Supreme Soviet, the country’s parliament. However, the new draft was provided to the CPSU Polit-Bureau members, including Analoly Lukyanov, the Soviet Parliament Speaker, a close Gorbachev associate, accused as the brain behind the coup, who had conveyed to this author about the serious concern the country’s top leadership harboured as the new draft, if signed, would have converted the Soviet Union to an amorphous organisation similar to the British Common-wealth. So the draft was a cause of serious concern for the CPSU Polit-Bureau and country’s leadership as it would have in any case meant the end of a unified sovereign country. This is the reason why they had to go for the so-called coup, some details of which have been provided below.

Yeltsin and his cohorts asserted that the disintegration process unleashed by Gorbachev’s perestroika was so strong and led to such an impasse that was there was no alternative but to formalise the break-up and end the crisis. Here one has to very clearly understand that though Gorbachev could not control the very forces released by his perestroika, it is Yeltsin who really hastened the disintegration process by pushing through the Russian Federation’s Sovereignty resolution on June 12, 1990 in the Russian Supreme Soviet, and that was followed by similar Sovereignty declarations by the other republics. This indeed provided the strongest impetus to the separatist movement across the nation leading to the final disintegration of the USSR. Gorbachev could be held responsible on many counts but he must be credited for unleashing a democratic process in the country by holding two most democratic and fair elections in 1989 and 1990 in the entire history of the Russian state, as a result of which Boris Yeltsin, the CPSU Polit-Bureau member till 1988, could emerge as the rallying point of the emerging anti-communist Opposition in the country. Gorbachev is now right when he laments that the USSR’s disintegration could have been averted if he had sent Yeltsin as an ambassador to a far-off country, which was the practice in case of dissenting Polit-Bureau members in the post-Stalin Soviet Union. Stalin used to send the dissenting members to the labour camp or physically annihilate them.

DESPITE the fact that many scholars till today believe that it was a coup attempt by the CPSU against the Soviet President Gorbachev, the author would like to provide an alternative perspective, which is based on his interviews with some of the coup leaders, with whom this author had personal contacts during his long stay at Moscow.

It should be reiterated that the USSR Supreme Soviet in its closed-door sessions and CPSU Polit-Bureau had time and again taken positions to declare emergency in certain parts of the Soviet Union in order to bring normalcy to the country, to which Soviet President and CPSU General Secretary Gorbachev was a party. One of the ‘plotters’, CPSU Secretary Oleg Shenin, at the helm of party affairs during the days of the so-called coup, told this author that Gorbachev was in favour of imposition of emergency but was always scared about the reaction of the West to such a move and worried about his prestige in the West when the country was going to dogs. However, when the leadership of the country realised that the situation in the country was going out of control and the new draft would further exacerbate the situation, they wanted to declare emergency in certain parts of the country to restore normalcy and made an attempt to convince Gorbachev about it when he was taking rest in his Black-Sea health resort at Faros. A delegation, representing the government and CPSU, went to Faros to discuss about the necessity of imposing emergency in certain parts of the country. Valentin Varennikov, the Deputy Defence Minister of the USSR, a member of the delegation that visited Gorbachev at his Faros residence, told this author that Gorbachev was not in principle opposed to imposition of emergency but was concerned about the Western reaction to the move at a time when the country was on the brink of collapse. The author’s interview with some of the plotters, like Oleg Shenin, Anatoly Lukyanov, Gennady Yanayev, as well as the official investigation reports suggest that Gorbachev was not absolutely isolated or under any kind of arrest as he claims; had all communication facilities at his disposal but preferred to remain in self-isolation during the fateful days. The plotters had pleaded with Gorbachev that the outside world would be told that he was relinquishing power in favour of Vice-President Gennady Yanayev for the time being because of his ill health and would return to office after recovery. The rest of the country’s leadership would try to bring the situation under control by declaring emergency in certain parts of the country after which Gorbachev can return to the Kremlin. Gorbachev’s major concern over the move was that his prestige would be at stake in the West as a result of this. However, while saying good-bye to the delegation of ‘plotters’ at his Faros residence, Gorbachev reportedly told them though arrogantly: ”You guys go and try this.” That implied that Gorbachev kept his options open: if the emergency succeeded he would return to the Kremlin as the leader of the CPSU, and in case of failure of the emergency he would come back to Moscow as the messiah of democracy.

However, Gorbachev’s calculations were out-manoeuvred by Yeltsin, who on the second day of the emergency had promised to resist the coup engineered against Gorbachev in order to re-establish legitimate power in the country but subsequently turned the table against Gorbachev after the plotters were arrested. It is apparent that Yeltsin in the beginning had extended support to declare emergency in the country. Otherwise, if it was a coup, Yeltsin as the Opposition leader could not have avoided arrest. But as the emergency leaders faltered after the infamous press conference held on August 19 where acting President Yanayev’s hands were shaking demonstrating his nervousness and lack of confidence about the legitimacy of their action to impose emergency, Yeltsin, taking advantage of the confusing nervous situation and breaking the understanding with the ‘plotters’ that he would support the emergency, climbed on a tank on August 20 to declare that it was a coup against the ‘democrat Gorbachev’ and he would fight for establishing President Gorbachev’s legitimate power. It has been established that tanks were brought to the Moscow streets on the request of Yeltsin and his men in order to maintain order in the capital, which was used by the global media, particularly the CNN, to project that it was a case of military coup against the legitimate power of President Gorbachev.

The plotters got nervous and faltered as Yeltsin broke the agreement for imposing emergency, particularly after three young people were killed in a provoked incident on August 21 night soon after which the plotters’ went to Faros to meet Gorbachev. Can it be possible that the plotters would go to their victim for further consultation? The wise Gorbachev realised that the emergency attempt had failed, did not receive its leaders at his Faros residence and asked for their arrest.

Little did Gorbachev realise that he had been absolutely outmanoeuvred by his arch rival Yeltsin who was fighting only for his personal power, and the latter literally forced Gorbachev in the Supreme Soviet to ban the Communist Party that he was heading. In the final analysis, it is Yeltsin who succeeded in capturing power in the Kremlin by staging a coup against Gorbachev and subsequently dissolving the USSR in December 1991. Gorbachev had all the constitutional authority and a strong loyal Army to keep the country united by using force. He did not use that option preferring to live with his democratic credentials.

People who justify the Soviet disintegration as an inevitable end of an empire must take note of the fact that there was a nationwide referendum on the issue of keeping the Union in a new form on March 17, 1991, barely few months before the Soviet disintegration in which 76 per cent of the population had wished for keeping the country unified, in spite of the widespread separatist movement across the country fuelled by domestic and international factors largely subjective in nature.

Twenty years have passed since the coup that precipitated the disintegration. The then Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, accuses the conservative communist coup for the Soviet demise. Yeltsin’s close circles still claim that Gorbachev was responsible for the Soviet disintegration. But most of the Russian citizens feel that the Soviet disintegration was not absolutely inevitable, essential and was by and large a result of the bitter power struggle between Gorbachev, the CPSU General Secretary, and his arch rival, former CPSU Polit-Bureau member Yeltsin. The opinion polls conducted across the country on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the so-called coup suggests that two-thirds of the population support the plotters’ action as their last desperate attempt to save the Union, and only eight per cent of the population support Yeltsin’s conduct during the event. Interestingly, the 20th anniversary celebrations were attended by barely a few dozen people and that too to denounce the current leadership of the country while President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin kept away from any celebrations linked with the event. Putin, who in the initial years of his presidency had hailed Yeltsin’s role during the fateful days of August 1991, has loudly declared that the Soviet disintegration was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.

Dr Arun Mohanty is a Professor at the SIS, JNU, New Delhi, and the Director, Eurasian Foundation.

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