New leaders face long odds in battling enduring woes Problems won't yield to discipline of fear

August 20, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Scott Shane is a former Moscow Bureau chief of The Sun.

Last December, after the Soviet parliament voted down his nominee for vice president, Mikhail S. Gorbachev demanded and got a re-vote.

"I need someone I can trust at my side," Mr. Gorbachev said, and the legislators obediently gave a majority to his choice, a colorless Communist party functionary named Gennady I. Yanayev.

In the wake of yesterday's coup, that moment becomes one of the grim ironies so abundant in Russian history and Soviet politics. Acting President Yanayev was positively chilling yesterday as he explained to journalists that the man who had trusted him was suddenly very tired, too tired to carry out his responsibilities as president.

Meanwhile, Russia's reformist president, Boris N. Yeltsin, so longlabeled Mr. Gorbachev's chief opponent, lauded the Soviet president for refusing to go along with the coup and called for his reinstatement.

As the Chinese leadership demonstrated at Tiananmen Square two years ago, pure force and the willingness to use it mercilessly count for a great deal in politics. But there are many reasons apart from wishful thinking to believe that the Soviet junta will have difficulty establishing a lasting, stable dictatorship.

One reason was seated alongside Mr. Yanayev at yesterday's news conference. He is Vasily Starodubtsev, chief of a collective farm and the member of the State of Emergency Committee charged with feeding the Soviet people.

Mr. Starodubtsev is the country's most prominent defender of the old order in agriculture. An avowed opponent of private farming, he standsfor propping up the system of state-run factory farms that have turned the nation in this century from a food exporter to a beggar dependent on huge grain imports.

With the likes of Mr. Starodubtsev in charge of agriculture, it is jTC hard to believe that the new government can pacify the public by filling food stores. It was, after all, the failure of the Communist economy to produce adequate living standards, not love of democracy, that prompted Mr. Gorbachev to launch reforms in 1985.

Pundits who predicted a coup in the Soviet Union cited as evidence reactionaries such as Mr. Starodubtsev -- the big losers of perestroika, out for vengeance. Heads of collective farms, managers of defense plants, regional party chiefs, KGB colonels, army generals -- they have reacted furiously for the last few years as their fiefdoms have been threatened. They are all represented on the State of Emergency Committee that has seized power.

But the experts who thought a coup was unlikely -- and they are a big majority -- also cited people such as Mr. Starodubtsev to bolster their case. The conservatives had no program, they argued. They were against reform, but they offered nothing in its stead. They could pull off a coup, but what would they do the next day? How would they feed the country?

Polls in recent months have indicated that as many as a third of Soviet citizens would support a military takeover if it meant an end to the ever-worsening shortages of food and basic goods. Mr. Yanayev was obviously playing to that simple hope yesterday with pledges of new crisis programs -- one week for a food plan, two weeks for an energy plan, a month for a housing plan.

Yet there is no reason to believe that these plans will be more successful than dozens of similar plans cooked up by Communists in the past. The new government might gain slightly by reimposing the discipline of fear, but it has lost any hope of Western advice and support.

Perhaps most critically, the junta is unlikely to cut the gargantuan share of resources still going to defense so that it can invest more in housing, energy and agriculture.

Such considerations create long odds against the government's being able to halt the country's economic collapse. But in the coming days and weeks, it faces many other obstacles.

The first is division within its own ranks. The bitter battles of reform have split the military, the KGB and the Internal Affairs Ministry as they have every other Soviet institution. Mr. Yeltsin won majorities at most military polling stations in the June election. Rank-and-file KGB officers have quit the Communist Party, and many openly proclaim their backing for Mr. Yeltsin.

Will some officers disobey the unconstitutional junta and obey the first elected Russian president? Moreover, can the junta trust the draftees in the army and Internal Affairs Ministry troops to follow orders, especially if the orders are to shoot their fellow 18- and 19-year-olds?

The second obstacle is popular resistance within Russia. It is focused around the charismatic figure of Mr. Yeltsin, whose ability to hold a news conference yesterday could be a sign that the coup was poorly planned.

Russian demonstrators, in three years of frequent protests, have, with few exceptions, been non-violent, almost polite. That could change, but democratic activists learned during the coal strike in the spring that a strike can be a more effective weapon than a demonstration.

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