Many Americans naturally assumed that last week's fleeting Soviet coup d'etat was aimed at stopping democracy. But the truth is not so simple.
If democracy was what worried the hard-liners, why did the tanks not roll in the spring of 1989, to halt the first free parliamentary elections? Why did they not move in the spring of 1990, when the Communist Party was forced to relinquish its seven-decade-old monopoly on power? The hard-liners were stronger then, the people more wary, and the chances for a coup to succeed far greater than they were shown to be last week.
The answer is that the putschists were not, first and foremost, worried about democracy, they were worried about empire. The coup started Monday because the Union Treaty was to be signed Tuesday, and the Union Treaty meant the end of the empire.
Mikhail S. Gorbachev, after many months of wavering and some bloody experiments with a tougher line in the Baltic republics, had finally accepted that membership in the new, improved U.S.S.R. would be voluntary. Only five of the 15 republics that make up the Soviet Union were expected to sign the Union Treaty on Tuesday, with perhaps four more to follow later on. The other six republics were saying they would not sign, and Mr. Gorbachev was at last implicitly accepting the fact that the republics not signing would become completely independent countries.
In the exhausting flow of political news from the East, it was easy to lose sight of the momentous nature of Mr. Gorbachev's concession. He was about to sign away a superpower. His treaty would have kissed a number of strategically important republics goodbye and handed over to the rest of the republics a considerable share of the Kremlin's power. The new country, or commonwealth, would even have a new name: not the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics but the Union of Sovereign Soviet Republics.
Here the hard-liners drew their hard line. Keeping all 15 republics in the empire and the power in the capital was clearly the coup-makers' prime goal in removing Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Their coup's almost instant collapse unquestionably has accelerated the shriveling of central power and the break-up of the U.S.S.R. -- a messy, dangerous but inevitable consequence of the end of Soviet totalitarianism.
Since the first Union Treaty was cobbled together by Lenin and Stalin in 1922, the U.S.S.R. has been an artificial and contradictory construction. Imagine Finland and Afghanistan as parts of a single state, despite having nothing in common in geography, climate, culture, or language. The Soviet republics of Latvia, on the Baltic Sea, and Turkmenistan, 2,000 miles to the south in Central Asia, to choose two almost at random, are no more alike.
The diverse republics shared only the dual yoke of communist ideology and Russian imperialism, neatly captured by the fact that in every republic, by Soviet tradition, the second secretary of the Communist Party was an ethnic Russian. The first secretary was of the local nationality, a Lithuanian or a Kirgiz or a Moldavian, but ordinarily an obedient one, sometimes even one raised in Moscow and unable to speak the local language.
For many republics, therefore, assertion of sovereignty or outright secession means not blind nationalism, ethnic chauvinism or economic isolationism, as many in the West assume. It means getting out of the "prison of nations," as both the czarist empire and the Soviet empire have been called. Sovereignty for a Soviet republic is simply a necessary precondition for freedom -- as the junta's botched takeover has underscored.
So what will happen now?
The republics, led by Russia's Boris N. Yeltsin, are going to rewrite the Union Treaty to slash the powers of the center still further. Mr. Gorbachev will have to acquiesce, just as he acquiesced Friday to Mr. Yeltsin's demand that new defense, police and KGB chiefs appointed by Mr. Gorbachev Thursday be replaced.
The existing draft Union Treaty already would make member republics sovereign states, with the right to establish direct diplomatic ties with other countries and sole control over their own land and resources. But the republics would delegate certain major powers to the central government: control of the borders, command of the armed forces, the right to issue a single currency, and a share in tax revenues and gold and diamond reserves.
Hence the draft Union Treaty was a compromise document, roughly following Mr. Gorbachev's contradictory formula of "strong republics, strong center." Russian radicals were angry that Mr. Yeltsin was not demanding more for the sprawling Russian Federation, which accounts for more than half the Soviet population, three-fourths of its land mass and the lion's share of its energy resources. But Mr. Yeltsin, conscious that every one of Gorbachev's concessions increased the threat of a hard-line coup, chose to make a deal.
Now the coup threat, which had hung like a thundercloud over Soviet politics for at least five years, has been swiftly and almost bloodlessly dissipated. The emboldened republics already are moving to ban the Communist Party, kick out Soviet troops and (( remove other unpleasant reminders of Moscow's previous iron control. (Leaders in the republic of Kirgizia announced they had assumed control of the local Lenin Museum.) Now the republics can write their own treaty, and Mr. Gorbachev will smile and sign it -- even if it leaves him the power, in Mr. Yeltsin's memorable analogy, of the Queen of England.
The republics are sure to seize a share of the armed forces, and Mr. Yeltsin has already said Russia will create its own national guard. They may do away with the Soviet parliament altogether. They may make the Soviet presidency even more of a figurehead, by abolishing direct election of a Soviet president and permitting the job to rotate among republican chief executives.
They may also seize for themselves the exclusive right to tax and to dispose of diamond and gold reserves -- but here the poor Central Asian republics, hoping for some share of Russia's wealth redistributed through the union, may squeal. Indeed, as the Soviet government withers away, Russia is likely increasingly to become the target of other republics' gripes.
What will emerge from the coming wheeling and dealing is difficult to predict, though some pact is necessary to redefine relations between the republics. But the ultimate version of the Union Treaty may make the new union merely an EEC-style economic alliance, or an even looser, ceremonial entity, perhaps resembling the British Commonwealth. In that case, even Georgia, Armenia and Moldova and the Baltic republics (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia), which have the most determined independence movements, may join. But many nationalists in those republics have learned never to trust a Russian who lives in Moscow, even if his name is Yeltsin.
The coup's initial impact was to harden the resolve of republics seeking independence. Two republics, Estonia and Latvia, seized the moment to declare their independence more unequivocally than before. Georgia's nationalist president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, urged the West to answer the coup by recognizing all the republics that are seeking independence.
Even in less rebellious republics, the coup compromised some leaders, leaving them vulnerable to nationalist fire. Azerbaijan's loyal Communist leader, Ayaz Mutalibov, made the fatal mistake of endorsing the coup and seems destined to be replaced, almost certainly by a stronger defender of the republic's sovereignty. The Ukrainian president, Leonid Kravchuk, came under fire for failing to condemn the coup for two days, and pro-independence nationalists have vowed to make him pay.
Western leaders' preference for dealing with the Soviet Union as a single superpower that speaks with a single voice is understandable but obsolete. The old Soviet Union will soon be at least six countries, possibly 15. The transition, now likely to take place swiftly, will raise a number of problems:
* Break-up of unified military forces. A Russian national guard capable of defending that sprawling land may not be able to coexist alongside a separate Soviet army. Control of the Soviet nuclear arsenal must be negotiated among the republics, and if there is no central Soviet military command the warheads may have to go to the Russian Federation to ensure tight supervision.
* Copycat secession movements for ethnic enclaves that exist within today's 15 republics. This is a particular problem for the Russian Federation, which includes in its borders 16 "autonomous republics," 10 "autonomous areas," and five "autonomous regions," most of them ethnically distinct. Tatarstan, for instance, already is battling for independence from Russia, and with 3.6 million people it is more than twice as big as Estonia, whose independence is universally backed in the West. There are Russians who want to secede from Moldova, Poles who want to quit Lithuania, Ossetians who want to leave Georgia -- the list is endless.
ZTC * Possible escalation of some interethnic disputes in the absence of intervention from the central government. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in a state of war for several years, and in at least some cases, Soviet troops have provided a buffer between them and prevented bloodshed. Mr. Yeltsin's Russian Federation has explicitly ruled out such a role for its own troops.
* Replacement of the old Soviet dictatorship in some republics with local dictatorships, built on nationalism or the personality of a strongman rather than ideology. Mr. Gamsakhurdia, the Georgian leader, despite talking a great deal about democracy, has frightened many observers with his tough stance against ethnic minorities, political dissent and free journalism.
* Serious economic disruptions as the republics pursue isolationist policies, develop their own currencies and rely on their own resources. Because Russia controls nearly all Soviet oil and natural gas, its decision to sell to other republics at the world price in hard currency will come as a severe blow to small republics' economies.
Whatever the troubles of the collection of nations emerging from the rubble of the old Soviet Union -- and they will be legion -- there is no preserving the empire. The botched coup that sought to save it probably has turned out instead to be a death blow.
The Soviet Republics
The U.S.S.R. is composed of 15 republics, several of which are seeking independence. There is a variety of ethnic and nationality groupings; 112 recognized languages are spoken. Here is a look at the republics with their land area, total population and ethnic groups which comprise 10% or more of the population. For comparison purposes, Maryland has an area of 12,186 square miles and a population of 4.8 million.
11,306 sq. mi.; 3.3 million; 93% Armenian
33,400 sq. mi.; 7.0 million; 83% Azeri
80,200 sq. mi.; 10.2 million; 78% Byelorussian, 13% Russian
17,413 sq. mi.; 1.6 million; 62% Estonian, 30% Russian
26,911 sq. mi.; 5.5 million; 70% Georgian
1,049,200 sq. mi.; 16.5 million; 40% Kazakh, 38% Russian
76,642 sq. mi.; 4.3 million; 52% Kirgiz, 22% Russian, 13% Uzbek
LATVIA 624,695 sq. mi.; 2.7 million; 52% Latvian, 34% Russian
26,173 sq. mi.; 3.7 million; 80% Lithuanian
13,012 sq. mi.; 4.3 million; 65% Moldavian, 14% Ukrainian, 13% Russian
6,592,800 sq. mi.; 147.4 million; 82% Russian
54,019 sq. mi.; 5.1 million; 61% Tadzhik, 23% Uzbek, 14% Tatar
188,417 sq. mi.; 3.5 million; 72% Turkmen, 10% Russian
233,100 sq. mi.; 51.7 million; 73% Ukrainian, 21% Russian
172,700 sq. mi.; 75% Uzbek
Sources: Europa World Yearbook, 1989 Soviet Census; World Almanac