The coup with no answers

Georgie Anne Geyer

August 20, 1991|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Washington -- MILITARY COUPS like the one that this week toppled Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia have often historically been the answer, unpalatable but real, to anarchy and chaos in different parts of the world. This one is different.

It looked on the surface like the "old way." Tanks rumbled into downtown Moscow, Gorbachev ominously disappeared, and the Soviet military and KGB duly announced they had acted in the nick of time to save the country from a "fatal danger."

In the next weeks, it may also appear that the new "command system" works better in emergencies than Gorbachev's chaotic ways did. Most probably, the hard-liners have been behind the withholding of products from the republics. Now, food will "miraculously" reappear in the shops as new proof of military efficiency.

But it is all only another Potemkin village of the Russian mind. For these acts have in truth faced the nation with the final and most dangerous descent into anarchy and disintegration, the coup-with-no-answers.

What, for instance, can the military leaders do about the Soviets' failing economy? Nothing. Can they bring in foreign investment, even if they would? Can they provide the answers to Soviet soldiers who out of desperation are selling their uniforms and weapons in the streets and parks of Berlin and Warsaw? No.

They can make it appear in the short run that they are reversing Gorbachev's liberalized foreign policy. They will probably embrace Fidel Castro's Cuba again. (Planning for the coup was almost surely the reason KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov made his astonishing secret trip to Havana last spring.) They may well make up with Saddam Hussein and stop the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe. They can confound President Bush's hopes on disarmament, NATO cutbacks and a Middle East peace conference -- and this is all serious.

But in terms of the profound transformation the whole country so desperately needs even to survive as a workable entity, the generals and the KGB masters have nothing to offer. Even the one model we have for a militarily imposed transformation of an outdated economy to a modern and producing market one -- the forced-modernization of Chile under Gen. Augusto Pinochet -- does not appear applicable here for want of players with those economic aspirations.

In short, what we have is simply a last-ditch, violent re-assertion of power by the traditional pillars of power, a railing against the failing light without any ability to produce a new dawn.

Actually, there is no mystery about what has happened, for there were many ominous signs of an impending military takeover. Strange and sporadic troop movements in 1990, sudden military and KGB attacks on border posts in the Baltics in 1991, a new "Security Council" formed last March to coordinate the coercive organs: All of this, and more, provided warnings of Gorbachev's internal frailties.

But at the same time, the military itself is so frail that one wonders whether it can hold the country together even in the short run. A brilliant new paper, "Gorbachev and the Future of the Soviet Military Institution," by Rand Corp. scholar Harry Gelman, published this spring by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, answers many of the still-outstanding questions.

Did last winter's attempted intimidation in the Baltics work? "The conservative Moscow coalition had clearly intended to use its Baltic show of force to intimidate national recalcitrants elsewhere," Gelman wrote. Instead, it only "further inflamed nationalists' resentment against the armed forces."

How united is the military? "The military is now significantly divided," Gelman wrote. "Division of opinion and attitude now exists both horizontally, between the military leadership and the middle layers of the officer corps, and vertically, within the high command itself." Gelman concludes that, despite everything, "In the long run, the Soviet military institution, like the party, cannot turn the clock back."

Far from a salvation of the Soviet Union from anarchy then, this coup only presages continued anarchy. Even more now than before the coup, the Soviet Union faces years of little civil wars, insurrections and insurgencies, with various groups fighting for power and with no internal resolution in sight in one of the grimmest forecasts for any country in the world today.

Georgie Anne Geyer writes a syndicated column on foreign affairs.

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