Lessons of a Failed Coup the Coup Endangered Help from the West and Sent Tremors through Eastern Europe, but It May Also Have Paved the Way for Deeper Reform

By Steven W. Popper. Steven W. Popper is an economist at the Rand Corporation Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. | The Christian Science Monitor, August 23, 1991 | Go to article overview

Lessons of a Failed Coup the Coup Endangered Help from the West and Sent Tremors through Eastern Europe, but It May Also Have Paved the Way for Deeper Reform


Steven W. Popper. Steven W. Popper is an economist at the Rand Corporation Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union., The Christian Science Monitor


LIKE a figure in Greek tragedy, Mikhail Gorbachev's strengths have nearly been his undoing. With superb political skill he avoided a formal party split, kept reformist forces balanced off against traditional sources of Soviet power, and effectively slowed the pace of transition to a new economic system. He thus bought time for conservatives to recover their balance and try to preserve the Soviet Union of their ideal. Unlike the classical tragic hero, he has been given a second chance to reflect and to learn.

The apparent failure of Monday's coup has several important consequences for the future course of economic reform in the Soviet Union.

To best understand this, we must understand who the plotters were. They were not representatives of the extreme right. Curiously, the best clue to the Gang of Eight's views on reform may have been conveyed by one fateful event that did not occur - a predawn arrest of Boris Yeltsin.

This suggests the self-appointed Emergency Committee felt their actions could be sold to the Soviet mainstream. Their economic message was not a call to reinstate the former system; rather, they desired to make economic change proceed along a "more reasonable" course and so remove the elements of chaos and disorder they perceived. This was genuine. They had in mind a Chilean model of authoritarian discipline coupled with economic liberalization.

But no member of the junta was associated with the reform element in the Soviet Union. It is unlikely they had any economic program more detailed than the inadequate anti-crisis program of Prime Minister Pavlov.

The coup preempted signing the Union Treaty between the Soviet government and nine republics. The intent was to preserve the authority of the center, the foundation the junta needed to restore order in the economy. But this edifice is now built on shifting sands. Rule by emergency decrees and state orders won't work without coercive measures to increase "discipline." The junta might have succeeded in improving the short-term supply situation, but only at the cost of long-term prospects. They could not heal the chronic ills of the system.

The coup came at the worst possible time for the economy; its failure averts a disaster. The next month is crucial for Soviet winter preparations. Now is when the coal supply is stockpiled and the harvest gathered. Even local disruption in the fields and the mines, and in the vulnerable transportation net, would be disastrous. What is worse, existing stockpiles would have been released early by the junta in an attempt to buy off the Soviet populace. This winter the larder would be bare.

HE economies of Eastern Europe also teetered on the brink. Dislocation in the Soviet Union would mean further disintigration of intra-regional trade. In the long run this would hasten the redirection of East European trade toward the West but in the short term more jobs would be lost and these new governments even harder pressed. …

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