Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

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

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 he al 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. And an outbreak of fighting would bring to life the specter still haunting Europe East and West: the prospect of uncontrolled waves of emigration from the Soviet Union. There may yet be a bad effect on Soviet prospects. Many of the slowly nurtured connections with the international economy so necessary for transition are now strained. Foreign investment is crucial for helping to renew Soviet infrastructure, provide expertise, and help integrate into the world economy. The enthusiasm of private commercial interests may be dampened. But the positive aspects are considerable. That this strange coup, organized by the government itself, failed quickly in the face of civil disobedience, is significant. Central authority may now be reformed. Conservative tendencies will be repudiated. The conservatives will not disappear, but they will be on the ropes. This is crucial because it provides the first real opportunity for economic reform to proceed with some coherency and dedication. The Union Treaty will now be signed, and domestic power relations will shift in favor of the republics - already the vanguard of change. The taxation provisions of the treaty, little noticed in the West, will have a powerful effect on Soviet politics, economics, and defense. We can expect a long, possibly turbulent shakedown. It is even possible the popular victory will counter the climate of despair that has so hobbled reform efforts. There is a social psychology of radical economic transformation. Reform must draw upon the hopes and best wishes of the population. These are wasting assets, declining over time and frustrated by failure and indecision. The frittering of this resource cost Gorbachev his popularity and made it impossible by the end for him even to hint at new reforms without sending waves of panic through the country. Once spent, these assets may only be replenished by a popular political act. The coup's failure provides such a mandate and conveys legitimacy to those leaders best able to lead the Soviet Union in a direction that will best serve the interests of its people, as well as the world. And what of Mikhail Gorbachev? He becomes an important symbol of constitutional authority. However, the mantle of true leadership will pass from him to those whose genius lies less in political maneuver and more in defining clear goals. Gorbachev has an important role to play in the coming transition but one quite different than the one he envisioned. Much depends on whether he realizes and accepts this. It will also determine, for him, whether the iron laws of tragedy hold firm.