Reformers' worst fears realized in right-wing coup NEWS ANALYSIS

August 19, 1991|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Sun Staff Correspondent

STOCKHOLM -- The coup d'etat that Soviet reformers have been fearing since virtually the beginning of Mikhail S. Gorbachev's ascent to power five years ago was nevertheless shocking when it was dramatically announced today.

The country was taken over by staunch right-wingers -- ostensibly led by Gennady Yanayev, Mr. Gorbachev's vice president and a relatively faceless politician here. But Mr. Yanayev was overshadowed among the plotters by the most powerful right-wing Soviet leaders -- including the Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov and the heads of the KGB, the Interior Ministry and the Defense Ministry.

Mr. Gorbachev had been warily trying to appease these men over the last year but they were clearly dangerous to his rule.

In their statement today, the leaders cited the violence and "anarchy" spreading through the Soviet Union as the reason for their action, but they themselves were suspected of stirring up a great deal of that disorder.

Seven Lithuanian border guards were killed execution-style at the end of July, for instance, in a incident that seemed designed to provoke trouble. The Interior Ministry forces of Boris Pugo, one of the plotters in today's coup, have since gone to exceptional lengths to deny any involvement in the killings.

Mr. Gorbachev, ousted while on vacation in the Crimea, had seemingly, however, achieved tenuous control over the political evolution of the Soviet system.

Last month, he had persuaded the Communist Party's Central Committee to adopt "for discussion" a wide-ranging program that encompassed a market economy, private property, the "integration" of the Soviet economy into that of the capitalist world and freedom of religion -- all once anathema to Communist Party doctrine.

This month, he achieved final agreement on a new union treaty binding the republics to Moscow. This new treaty, which Mr. Gorbachev made clear he believed to be of crucial importance to the future of the country, would have given the republics broad powers over taxes, trade, foreign investment and economic reform.

The treaty, which the republics were to begin signing tomorrow, was a triumph not only for Mr. Gorbachev but for Boris N. Yeltsin, president of the Russian Republic.

It would have delineated in the widest terms possible the power base of the fiery, crafty, anti-Communist Mr. Yeltsin.

Loathed by the old party barons, Mr. Yeltsin had faced the Russian voters in June, winning 60 percent and smashing feeble Communist Party opposition.

If the union treaty had come into force, similarly free elections for the Soviet presidency would have been held next year, with prospects that the party would fare just as poorly on the national level as it had on the Russian level.

But now instead of a union treaty, the new Soviet leaders have imposed a partial six-month state of emergency and invoked "the unconditional supremacy of the federal constitution."

They moved in classic Soviet fashion, declaring baldly that Mr. Gorbachev's health made it impossible for him to continue as president -- exactly as Leonid I. Brezhnev and his fellow plotters had done when they ousted Nikita Khrushchev 27 years ago.

Today's plotters also said they were prompted by "demands" for "law and order" by "broad popular masses."

They cited "chaos and anarchy" in the country, which -- with the exception of a single province in the Caucasus -- was an exaggeration.

The right-wingers have also pointed to the worsening economic situation, particularly the distribution of food, as evidence that Mr. Gorbachev's "perestroika" (restructuring) has only served to unleash disarray on a system that once worked reasonably well.

The economy has been at an extremely delicate point -- at the transformation from the old command system to one moving toward markets and free enterprise. The old structure had been largely dismantled without the new one having been installed to replace it -- and here lay the greatest potential for true anarchy.

Now, Mr. Yanayev and his allies from the army and the security services have stepped in to try to exert their will instead -- the will of the unreconstructed barons of the old Communist Party.

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