The Last Years of the Soviet Empire: Snapshots from 1985-1991

By Vladimir Shlapentokh; Neil F. O'Donnell | Go to book overview

RUSSIA AGAIN AT A CROSSROADS: MILITARY COUP OR LOOSE CONFEDERATION? JUNE 1991

This snapshot, perhaps more than any other, provides not only a record of
current events, but foreshadows events to come. All of the players are here:
the conservatives, becoming increasingly frustrated, angry, and reckless; the
national republics, moving further away from the center; and, of course,
Gorbachev, warding off attacks and clutching to whatever power he has left.
It is no longer a question of whether radical changes will take place, but
when.

Western politicians debating whether to provide economic assistance to Gorbachev seem to be making two assumptions: that the major decisions in the Soviet Union will continue to be made in Moscow, and that Gorbachev or his successor will honor any obligations made in the negotiations with the United States and the big seven industrialized nations. Both assumptions are questionable, at best.

In the last few months, several separate but related events have radically heightened tensions in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, for example, recently made several unexpected conciliatory gestures toward the Soviet democrats. Given his enormous power and his continuing control over defense, foreign policy, and internal security issues, the democrats have been understandably pleased with Gorbachev's actions. The conservatives, however, do not share the democrats' sentiments.

In 1989-1990, it appeared that the conservatives had begun to bow to Gorbachev's authority and his policy of democratization. In the summer of 1990, however, the conservatives launched a counter-offensive. They lost their fear of free elections, elaborated a new ideology denigrating the election results as the brainwashing of the public by the "so-called democrats," and persuaded themselves that they were Russia's only hope for salvation. Finally, they focused their energies on the preservation of the empire rather than on other dimensions of the Soviet system (such as privatization).

The conservatives had one major factor on their side: Until 1989, Gorbachev took his tremendous power for granted. He assumed he could perform his historical role as the modernizer of Russia without serious concern for the preservation of his power. However, as his prestige declined and new independent political forces emerged, his position as leader became increasingly precarious.

Since 1989, the preservation of his position as leader of the country has been extremely important to Gorbachev, and has influenced all of his major

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