DEATH OF A DREAM
SOVIETS TRY TO GRASP THE HARSH IMPLICATIONS OF AN EMPIRE THAT IS FALLING APART
The late-summer leaves fell softly on Moscow's broad Kutuzovsky Prospekt last week. Outside State Shoestore No. 16, a lineup of Muscovites discussed the swift collapse of communism and the
equally rapid transfer of Kremlin power to Soviet republics in the wake of the failed military coup. And they talked, as always, of the painful problems of Soviet consumers— problems that, at least in the short term, could well grow worse as the country disintegrates. As a light rain sprinkled the crowd, Natalia Malashenka, a 40-year-old subway-train driver, offered a homely illustration of the interdependence of the republics’ economies. From an acquaintance who works at the city’s Paris
Commune shoe factory, Malashenka had learned that Armenian authorities in the republican capital of Yerevan had shut down the Nayerit glue plant because of repeated pollution offences. As a result, Moscow shoe manufacturers were forced to use inferior bonding agents in new footwear. Malashenka, glancing at her grey, plastic summer shoes, said with a sigh: “I am glad the Communists are going, but finding good winter boots is harder than ever.” Across the Soviet Union, millions of other citizens have been trying to grasp the stunning implications of an ethnically diverse empire throwing off nearly 74 years of Communist rule—and dissolving into a collection of independent states. As many outsiders contemplated the fate of the U.S.S.R.’s 30,000 nuclear
warheads, most Soviet citizens said that they worried instead about the disruption of the economic ties imposed by Communist central planners. The leaders of Ukraine and Kazakhstan, meanwhile, expressed concern that Boris Yeltsin, the Russian republic president who defied the coup-makers and clearly emerged as the nation’s most powerful politician, would appropriate Soviet power to establish a new Russian empire. Yeltsin denied that allegation and, in a Russia-wide radio broadcast last week, bluntly told his constituents that it was time to end euphoric victory celebrations and return to normal working conditions before the onset of winter. Added the Russian president: “The collapse of the centre is not paramount to the collapse of the country, let alone Russia. The striving to create a new, really free, really voluntary union of sovereign and, I stress, equal states, remains strong.”
The second Russian revolution, convulsing an empire wrenched from the czars and consolidated under the iron grip of the Kremlin's first Bolshevik rulers, left the top echelons of the Soviet government in ruins. By week’s end, 13 senior officials had been charged with treason— and could face a firing squad if convicted. Among them is Supreme Soviet chairman Anatoly Lukyanov, arrested last week for alleged complicity in the Aug. 18 attempt to overthrow Soviet President Mik-
hail Gorbachev, whom he first met in law school 40 years ago. Following that initial government housecleaning, Russian republic officials led by new Prime Minister Ivan Silayev assumed key posts directing the country’s sinking economy. And Boris Pankin, the Soviet ambassador to Czechoslovakia, who publicly condemned the coup on its third day, was rewarded with an appointment as the new Soviet foreign minister, replacing Alexander Bessmertnykh, who was fired for not opposing the coup. His goal, Pankin said, was to draw the Soviet Union closer to “the world of civilized nations.”
In addition, pro-democracy advocates who publicly rallied behind Yeltsin as the eight-man junta’s tanks rumbled into Moscow began directing purges of the armed forces, security services and state-controlled media. Vadim Bakatin, a former interior minister, took over as KGB chief from Vladimir Kryuchkov, one of the now-disgraced Gang of Eight. He immediately began restructuring and reining in the much-feared organization, turning over its troops to the army and abolishing its vast network of informants. Yegor Yakovlev, editor of the influential weekly newspaper Moscow News, assumed the chairmanship of Gostelradio, the state broadcasting network that had been headed by Leonid Kravchenko, a conservative who, during the coup, filled the airwaves with the conspirators’ line. Yakovlev had barely settled into his new office when he discovered that one-third of his correspondents were KGB operatives—all of whom he dismissed.
As the old order crumbled, Gorbachev, suddenly subordinate to Yeltsin, struggled for political survival. On Aug. 24, two days after he returned from his Crimean dacha, where the coup-plotters had held him captive, the Soviet president finally resigned as leader of the Communist party, which had been discredited beyond salvation. Last week, the Soviet legislature suspended the party’s activities throughout the country. But the demise of Soviet communism also robbed Gorbachev of his formal power base. And when he tried one of his old political tricks, threatening to resign as president if the republics did not preserve some form of union, Soviet legislators treated him with scant respect.
In another telling illustration of Gorbachev’s diminished stature, deputies meeting in the Kremlin took back the sweeping emergency powers that they had granted him last year during ultimately unsuccessful efforts to end the country’s economic crisis. The legislators also rejected his liberal-packed list of nominees to the federal Security Council, a sort of inner cabinet for the Soviet president, until republican leaders have approved those choices. In a further public embarrassment, three of the nominees—close aide and former ambassador to Canada Alexander Yakovlev, former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze and Moscow Mayor Gavriil Popov—declined Gor-
bachev’s invitation to serve on the committee.
Meanwhile, Yeltsin was trying to repair the damage caused by his earlier suggestion that Russia might review its borders with any republic seceding from the union. The Russian president said that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the three Baltic states that last week won diplomatic recognition from Canada and several other countries, would be excluded from any such review. But that was cold comfort to the leaders of Ukraine and Kazakhstan, who expressed concerns that an expansion-minded Russia would pursue territory heavily populated by their own large Russian-speaking minorities.
Russian and Ukrainian leaders officially recognized each other’s territorial integrity last year. But the Ukrainians, who declared their independence on Aug.
24 (subject to a referendum in December), are still clearly wary that Russia will try to recapture the Crimea and the rich coalfields of the Donets Coal Basin, which the Soviet government transferred from Russian to Ukrainian jurisdiction in 1954. Last week, a toplevel Russian delegation led by republican Vice-President Alexander Rutskoi travelled to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, for an emergency meeting.
After an all-night session, the two sides reached a temporary military and economic agreement. The goal, according to the joint communiqué: preventing the total disintegration of the union.
Ukrainian officials asserted in their declaration of independence that they do not want Soviet nuclear missiles on their soil. “Don’t forget,” said John Hewko, a U.S. lawyer who is acting as an adviser to the Ukrainian parliament, “that the Chernobyl power plant is not far from Kiev—this is not a place that feels kindly towards things nuclear.” Pointedly ignoring Kremlin authority, the two delegations invited other republics to join their new alliance. Anatoly Sobchak, the reformist mayor who led Leningrad’s successful resistance to the failed coup, travelled to Kiev to monitor the talks for the Soviet parliament. And he bluntly summed up the swift settlement of a fledgling dispute between the Soviet Union’s two most powerful republics. “The results of these negotiations,” he said, “are that the old union does not exist and there can be no return to it.”
Rutskoi continued his diplomatic fencemending by flying to Alma-Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan. There, he offered formal reassurances to President Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose Central Asian republic is acutely sensitive about any suggested changes to its borders with Russia. That is because the Kremlin has sent waves of Russian and Ukrainian settlers to Kazakhstan’s steppes, mines and factories since the dawn of the Communist era—among them untold thousands of inmates who were consigned to dictator Josef Stalin’s notorious labor camps. As a result, native Kazakhs are
now outnumbered by a large Russian community that makes up 41 per cent of the republic’s 16.5 million people (other nationalities there include Ukrainians and Tatars). Nazarbayev, a supporter of Yeltsin’s year-old goal of creating a voluntary confederation of truly sovereign states that would be modelled roughly on the European Community, welcomed his Russian guest with a pointed illustration of his own authority: he issued a decree closing down the Soviet Union’s nuclear test range at Semipalatinsk, in the republic’s north.
At the same time, Nazarbayev warned that Kazakhstan might even join the growing stampede of republics from the collapsing union. Another eight republics have already taken
that step during or after the bungled coup, following Lithuania’s stubbornly maintained March, 1990, declaration of independence and Georgia’s declaration of April, 1991. Those republics are Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Moldova, Byelorussia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the latter three opting for secession at week’s end. Armenia, which is locked in a vicious border war with largely Moslem Azerbaijan, has also announced its intention to secede from the union. But the Azerbaijani decision illustrates the varying degrees of commitment to so-called independence. Azerbaijani President Ayaz Mutalibov, one of the few republican leaders to voice support for the short-lived coup, was plainly trying to escape the anti-Communist backlash that is sweeping the nation.
But the poorer Central Asian republics— even those that have declared their independence—will likely still favor close economic ties within a renewed union. Certainly, the
collapse of central power moves Moldova’s majority population closer to its now acknowledged goal of reunification with kinfolk in Romania. But tiny, landlocked Armenia, flanked by hostile Azerbaijan and Turkey, traditionally an enemy, would find it difficult to stand alone. Georgia, too, with its rich farmlands largely devoted to a few crops under rigid Soviet central planning, would have to diversify its agricultural economy, growing more wheat and fewer grapes and tea, in any break from the Soviet Union.
The Baltic states, on the other hand, have been unwavering in their efforts to regain the independence that the Red Army crushed in 1940. Economists with all three governments
candidly acknowledge that adjusting to freemarket trade without access to heavily subsidized Soviet oil-and-gas supplies will likely cause an immediate 10-per-cent drop in Baltic standards of living. For one thing, the newly free states have only slight hopes of exporting beef, butter and other farm produce to European Community countries that are awash in agricultural surpluses. But the optimistic Balts insist that their fortunes will improve outside the Soviet Union. Before their forcible incorporation into the U.S.S.R., they argue, Latvia and Estonia ranked ahead of Finland in per capita income. Now, Finland, having retained its independence, is six times more affluent than any of the Baltic republics.
Even as Yeltsin seeks to preserve some form of confederation, the mighty Russian republic, containing slightly more than half of the Soviet
Union’s population of 287 million and most of its landmass and resources, could clearly exist as a separate country. And Ukraine, with 52 million people, the agricultural heartland of the Soviet Union as well as one of its major industrial regions, could also stand alone. Hewko, the American lawyer, argued: “If Uruguay can make it in the world with three million people, then Ukraine has a good chance, with its population and resources.”
At the moment, the 104 recognized national groups that are spread across the 15 republics are locked into an overly centralized system. In it, each area specializes in a particular type of goods, ranging from shoe glue to streetcar rails. And any break in that increasingly fragile supply chain sends shortages rippling through the entire system. For one thing, civil strife and parts shortages have crippled Azerbaijani production of oil-extraction equipment, contributing to a dramatic drop in Siberian oil output, a vital export and source of hard currency.
Whatever new union structure emerges, it will inherit responsibility for the long-mismanaged Soviet economy. But Grigory Yavlinsky, a key participant in a reform program developed jointly by liberal Soviet and American economists, argues that the Yeltsin-led democrats, in marked contrast to Gorbachev’s hesitations and half-measures, are more likely to meet Western conditions for increased aid. Among those requirements: deep military spending cuts and concrete steps to speed the Soviet transition to a market economy. Still, Yeltsin has accepted the counsel of advisers who want him to continue working in tandem with Gorbachev—in part because the Soviet leader can still absorb some of the criticism directed at the reform forces as they try to shape the nation’s future. The two political rivals were even scheduled to appear together this week—in an ABC TV interview and phone-in show hosted by Toronto-born Peter Jennings, right after Monday Night Football.
In the Soviet Union, the current game of choice is the hunt for coup collaborators and sympathizers. Local investigative committees in Moscow and other cities have received anonymous denunciations from informers who were clearly seeking to inflict harm on personal enemies. Self-styled vigilantes have prompted so many complaints of harassment that Russian prosecutor Valentin Stepankov advised: “Although those people are possibly motivated by the sincere desire to identify those responsible for the coup, I would like to warn them against attempts at lynching.”
Still, the Soviets continued to marvel at their own People Power. Russian television repeatedly aired programs showing citizens facing down the conspirators’ armored force, providing fodder for innumerable kitchen-table discussions of the country’s future after communism. From the evidence of last week, there was at least one clear pointer to the future: traditional matryushka (nesting) dolls bearing Yeltsin’s image were easily outselling those depicting Gorbachev.