The year that President George Bush marked out as the beginning of a new world order opened to the drumbeat of war over oil and power in the Middle East, a war that resolved neither dispute. The year brought celebrations of freedom regained by hostages to Middle Eastern hostilities, enmities that persist. But the images that stamp 1991 as a year that will live in history—and color the world’s future—are of conflicts played out, freedoms won and loyalties lost in the Soviet Union. The new Soviet revolution turned 20thcentury history upside down.
Seldom has the fall of a global power been so sudden. Not since the 10 days that shook the world in the Soviet revolution of 1917 has a regime collapsed so swiftly. With the demise of the union went the first Communist nation’s founding ideal of building a classless, communal society. It was an ideal that, despite its corruption by Kremlin tyrants, helped to shape a century. It was swept aside in a surge of ethnic nationalism that shattered the Soviet Union, after splintering Europe’s Communist Bloc in 1989.
The force that divides races, religions and language groups infected societies around the world. It provoked civil war in Yugoslavia. It is the main suspect in the assassination of India’s Rajiv Gandhi in May. It set Sunni against Shiite Moslems, and Arab against Kurd, in the wake of the Gulf War.
In that war, the American-led fight to drive Iraqi troops out of Kuwait created other images of combat. It involved the armed forces of more nations than any conflict since the Second World War. Never
before had a battle zone been blitzed by such a stunning array of computer-guided weapons and smart bombs. The war lasted a brutal 44 days in January and February. It took upwards of 200,000 lives and displaced many more. But autocrats in both Iraq and Kuwait were left in power.
In August, an attempted coup in Moscow directly involved only eight conspirators. It lasted only 72 hours. It cost four lives.
At the close of the year, leaders of Israel and hostile Arab neighboring communities met face-to-face, if warily, to talk about making peace. There were few other outward signs that the Gulf War, already fast fading from the attention of its global audience, had wrought many changes more enduring than the satellite TV images that had carried the high-tech hostilities live to the world.
But in the Soviet Union, transformations set off by the swiftly tamed August coup thrust that ruined superpower towards a difficult and dangerous future.
The coup that led to the demise of the Soviet Communist party and the eclipse of President Mikhail Gorbachev was headed by men who sought to preserve the union against the divisive pressures of ethnic nationalists. And in another twist, Boris Yeltsin, the Russian leader who harnessed popular outrage against the coup and orchestrated Gorbachev’s release from captivity, seized the moment to expropriate power for the Russian republic from the union government. Declared Gorbachev then: “I will do everything possible to prevent our country from falling apart.” It was a commitment that was al-
ready being overtaken by independence celebrations in former Soviet provinces from the Baltic to the Balkans. And in December, after a Ukrainian referendum showed overwhelming support for independence, Gorbachev was rebuffed in his efforts to restore even an economic union. “Without the union, there will be an eternal erosion of our society as a whole,” he predicted. “The disintegration will even be fraught with wars.”
An example supporting such alarm raged close at hand in the confederation of Yugoslavia. There, a similar surge of regional nationalism engulfed Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in civil war. It was a worst-case example cited also in Canada. For the first time, in serious Canadian public forums late in the year, academics and others raised the spectre of civil strife if Quebec should secede. Canadians could but watch events in Europe uneasily as they approached a year of deadlines for the resolution of their own regional arguments.
The world’s rising nationalist fervors menaced a hope that, in Bush’s words as he prepared the United States for Operation Desert Storm in the Gulf War, “out of these troubled times a new world order can emerge—a new era, freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice and more secure in the quest for peace.” Still, despite February’s success of arms by the 33-nation coalition forged by Bush against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—“If we didn’t know it before Desert Storm, we know it now: nothing can stop us,” Bush declared afterwards—the U.S. President had become yesterday’s hero at home by year’s end. Approaching the 1992 election year, Bush was attacked for what his critics say is a failure to fight the stubborn economic recession which, at its onset in 1990, had been widely but wrongly foreseen as a mild corrective to the fiscal excesses of the 1980s.
Tens of thousands of Canadians also experienced a plague of layoffs that blighted 1991. Hardship was aggravated by the Goods and Services Tax implemented on New Year’s Day and an ensuing'epidemic of cross-border shopping that penalized businesses across the country. Blame fell heavily on Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s government and, indeed, on established politicians generally. Electors turned out governments in British Columbia and Saskatchewan during October and installed NDP successors under Michael Harcourt in Victoria and Roy Romanow in Regina. In New Brunswick, a month earlier, voters elected eight members of the Confederation of Regions party, a fringe faction that formed the official opposition to Premier Frank McKenna’s reelected Liberal government. Across Englishspeaking Canada, many voters turned from mainline parties to join Preston Manning’s Reform party.
In Canada, as in many countries abroad, the images of dispute, upheaval and recession in 1991 seemed to foretell a new year of difficulty, even danger—something far short of a new world order that brings security and peace.
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