From hero to economist, Yeltsin survives Coup's enemy seized the day SOVIET COUP: A YEAR LATER


MOSCOW -- The coup that unfolded one year ago this week -- and then unraveled -- came about in the first place because of Boris N. Yeltsin.

The plotters moved against Mikhail S. Gorbachev, but they missed their aim, even from the start: It was Mr. Yeltsin they hated.

He was a reformed Communist, and, like a reformed sinner at a revival meeting, he had seen the light and was altogether filled with zeal about the misdeeds of his former comrades.

Mr. Yeltsin -- today so often pictured as the beleaguered president of a sorely pressed nation -- was in the summer of 1991 the very image of undaunted leadership.

First he won a popular election as president of the Russian republic, trouncing the Communist candidate. Then he did away with party cells in factories and the army. This was serious. And then, in merely days, he was to gain even more power in a new union treaty that he had forced Mr. Gorbachev to accept.

The old-line Communists couldn't stand him.

The union treaty, giving considerable authority to the individual republics within a new Soviet structure, was supposed to be signed on Tuesday, Aug. 20. Early Monday morning, Moscow Radio announced that Mr. Gorbachev had been confined to his dacha in the Crimea by "illness" and that a hitherto unheard of State Committee for the State of Emergency had taken over.

Gone was the union treaty. In fact, gone shortly thereafter was the union.

They hated Mr. Yeltsin, and so they moved against Mr. Gorbachev. Mr. Yeltsin mounted that famous tank, wondered if anybody was listening, proclaimed his resistance and brought down the entire system.

The nation learned that his careful cultivation of military commanders in the spring and summer of 1991 had been well worth the effort. In the end, no one in the military moved against him. The world learned that as the Communist Party's Public Enemy No. 1, Mr. Yeltsin commanded tremendous respect among ordinary Russians.

The ringleaders of the coup learned too late how thoroughly Mr. Yeltsin had stolen the ground from under them. A few drank themselves into stupors. One shot himself. All but two are now in jail.

Mr. Gorbachev survived but quickly faded into the background, a victim of his own caution.

Mr. Yeltsin was ideally suited to the role thrust upon him in August 1991. Decisive, articulate, clear, ready to press his advantage -- he had all the qualities that Mr. Gorbachev lacked.

He seized the moment and did away with the Communist Party. Later, when Mr. Gorbachev hemmed and hawed over reform, Mr. Yeltsin met with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus, and together they did away with the Soviet Union.

The coup that took place one long year in Russian history ago, that third week of August, with autumn very much in the air, was to be Mr. Yeltsin's moment.

Today, the so-called Commonwealth of Independent States is a dangerously uncomfortable union seething with old grudges and bloody ethnic conflicts.

Inside Russia, the Communists have been joined by plenty of others in their abuse of the Russian president, and the democrats' trumpets are no longer blowing. The economy is variously described as collapsing, in a tailspin or heading for a black hole.

Nikolai Pavlov, head of the Russian Unity faction in Parliament, called in June for all-out struggle against "this criminal, insane, anti-Russian, anti-people and anti-state regime."

Mr. Yeltsin's government boldly embarked in January on a course of abrupt economic reform. Since then industrial output has shrunk 14 percent, exports are down 30 percent, and imports are down 18 percent. The inflation rate in the first four months of the year was 740 percent.

People walk about with sacks full of rubles to do their ordinary shopping, bringing to mind visions of Germany before Adolf Hitler. The government sent a railroad box car stuffed with cash to Krasnoyarsk to pay off chemical workers' back wages. Millions of workers are on mandatory vacations, which many think will lead directly to the unemployment line in the fall.

At the same time, the government is coming under heavy pressure to back away from the reforms, primarily from the managers of the big, state-owned industries. And they've got a lot of pressure to wield.

As Arkady Volsky, the industrialists' leader, said recently, "Power belongs to those who have property and money. At present it is not the government but industrial managers who have both."

Russia clearly needs more than a defiant hero standing on a tank.

Mr. Yeltsin, though, has proved over the last year that he's no rabble-rouser. His program, under the guidance of Yegor T. Gaidar, the prime minister, is serious. For good or bad, Mr. Yeltsin has secured the support of the International Monetary Fund, and the first billion dollars out of a package that could total $24 billion is on its way here. Last month, Western leaders finally woke up to the realization that Mr. Yeltsin's policies are far more focused and substantive than any Mr. Gorbachev produced.

There are, even, some good signs here at home. Not only are shelves filling again, but the quality of merchandise is improving. Many thousands of Russians -- newly self-employed as painters, carpenters, mechanics, computer technicians, traders, dealers, travel operators -- are showing how easy it is to acquire the work ethic.

Everybody worries about what the winter will bring, but it may not be that difficult precisely because everybody is worrying about it: The amount of land devoted to private vegetable gardens is reportedly five to eight times greater than last summer. That's a lot of potatoes.

And yet, it's hard to see how the transition to a free-market, democratic system can end happily.

A poll of 563 economists, bankers and businessmen that was published last week found that hardly more than a quarter of them expect any improvement in the economy before 1994. More than half think the government's attempt to make the ruble convertible will fail.

Mr. Yeltsin said last month that "the most difficult question" he faced was when people asked him how long it would take for things to get better.

"I tell them, 'It won't be easy tomorrow. It won't be easy this year,' " he said.

His approval rate is hovering around 32 percent in the polls. Grumbling about politicians and accusations that they squandered the hope and promise of last August are commonplace.

Gherman Dilighensky, a political analyst with Moscow News, argues that Mr. Yeltsin has many strengths but has stumbled as a democratic leader. The 61-year-old president is a product of the Communist Party (and was a zealous Communist in his time), and he still tends to rule like a Communist satrap, Mr. Dilighensky argues. He dispenses favors to the people, rather than actively working as a teacher, persuader, listener.

Mr. Yeltsin has chosen to rely on his still formidable prestige and has kept himself aloof from party politics. Mr. Dilighensky maintains that it takes parties to run governments. Without a strong party system at the top, like those in Western European countries, Russia's government today, he says, is a "mess in the upper echelons of power."

Russians love to compare themselves to the Israelites wandering through the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt. For 40 years they sought the promised land -- but they only got there after the last survivors of the old ways had died out. Even Moses -- too much a throwback to the bad old days of the pharaoh -- died before setting foot in the land of Israel.

Forty years is a long time to wander, particularly for so uncohesive a tribe as the Russians. On the other hand, the wilderness doesn't look too inviting. But Mr. Yeltsin has vowed to press on. Under fire from both left and right at the beginning of the summer, he declared, "Any halt would be simply fatal for Russia."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad