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Coup and Chaos

FOR an operation as coordinated, extensive, and serious as the coup in Moscow appears to be, Washington and the West were caught uninformed and unprepared. Troops are not deployed in five Soviet republics, and mayors and other elected officals from cities as disparate as Leningrad and Vladivostock deposed, without plenty of planning.Nonetheless, President Bush from the start hit the right tone: an alert wait-and-see, and a call for the return of Mikhail Gorbachev. Mr. Bush has not recognized the hard-line State Committee for the State of Emergency, nor should he (or any other world leader) rush to recognize them anytime soon. Coups can fail; they can be reversed. Moreover, there are clear criteria for recognizing new governments and states, two of which have not yet been satisfied: First, it is not clear the State Committee has complete control of the country, including borders. A number of key republics, particularly the Ukraine, were wary about signing even Gorbachev's painfully wrought Union Treaty this week. Powerful leaders like Leonid Kravchuk of the Ukraine or Nursultan Nazarbaev of Khazhakstan will not now simply capitulate. They have local constituencies to consider. After five years of glasnost the idea of democracy, and especially of autonomy, has filtered down to the gr ass roots in republic after republic - even to the communist parties there. Armed conflict or riots pitting locals against central authority are not impossible. Does the State Committee have enough Red Army troops, and enough will, to quell revolts in multiple republics? The coup may actually mark the end of the "union," not its preservation. Second, the State Committee has not been elected - but is rather usurping newly elected officials. That is not acceptable or legitimate. The West can't afford to cut relations with the Soviet Union, but neither can anti-democratic actions be condoned. The White House must show continued support for the elective process, and for Russian president Boris Yeltsin in particular. Mr. Yeltsin is the single most important leader in the Soviet Union on the side of progress. Why he was not arrested by the hard-liners is unclear - but it may indicate a weakness. The committee recognized Yeltsin's popularity in Russia, and they must play a bit to the West. They can't arrest everyone. Better to make Gorbachev, with his unpopular perestroika and economic mess, the scapegoat. Yet the coup leaders - from the KGB, the Army, the Communist Party - aren't popular either. They are gray men, all. Their puppet "president," Gennady Yanayev, is a gray man's gray man. More important, they have no economic plan. Mr. Yanayev promises to "stabilize" the economy. How? With what? Who will now deal with a testy West? How long will Russians accept more poverty and hunger? What tactics will be used to keep them in line? The hard-line representatives of the past want things they can't have: They want the old Soviet empire with an economy reforming at a snail's pace. They want a mild coup, and stability. What it appears they will get instead is chaos if the coup fails - and chaos if it succeeds.

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