Kremlinologists see trouble ahead for coup leaders SOVIET CRISIS

August 21, 1991|By Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In the confusion and uncertainty surrounding the 2-day-old coup in the Soviet Union, not even the so-called experts of Kremlinology agree on what it means or where it will lead. But a sampling of opinion from 10 U.S. experts interviewed by The Sun offers their insights on some of the lingering questions:

Q: It was well known that hard-line conservatives were becoming increasingly unhappy with Mikhail S. Gorbachev, but what prompted them to such drastic action?

A: Almost everyone agrees that plans to begin signing the union treaty yesterday were the key to the timing. The treaty, which would have given unprecedented powers to the various Soviet republics, represented a point of no return for the old ways of Moscow-centered power. "The union treaty catalyzed the coup," said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Berkeley-Stanford Program Soviet Studies.

Q: Did anything else affect the timing?

A: The recent refusal of the world's "Group of Seven" economic powers to offer direct financial aid was a contributing factor, says Yuri N. Maltsev, an analyst with the U.S. Institute of Peace who is acquainted with three of the eight coup leaders. He also cited the approach of winter, which provided an optimum time to exploit popular anxieties over food shortages and a collapsing economy. And Mr. Gorbachev was on vacation, just as Nikita S. Khrushchev was when he was deposed in 1964.

Q: Did anyone see this coming?

A: Almost everyone seems to have been surprised by the actual event, although plenty of people have said for months that the conditions were right for some sort of takeover, and several Soviet officials have warned of the possibility. Analysts now point to the speech last December by then-Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who warned of an "approaching dictatorship." Then there was the delegation of Americans that accompanied last year's visit to the Soviet Union by former President Richard M. Nixon, which was told by a deputy defense minister that hard-liners might soon lose patience. A U.S. diplomatic official said yesterday, "We saw the first signs in October, when there was a lot of talk about a coup, and things just got worse and worse." And, as recently as last Friday, Alexander N. Yakovlev, a key designer of Mr. Gorbachev's reforms, quit the Communist Party and warned of an imminent coup by a "Stalinist" faction of party leadership.

Q: What kind of people are in the takeover group?

A: They are largely a colorless, seemingly uninteresting bunch, much better at answering to the party than to the populace, said Mr. Maltsev. But Thane Gustafson of Georgetown University said, "You've got a bunch of people here who until as recently as 1988 were regarded as reformers."

L Q: How did they reach positions of prominence to begin with?

A: Mr. Gorbachev thrust most of them into power, some because they were allies of his reform movement -- at least early on -- and others because they made a convenient counterweight to officials pushing for more rapid change. "Mr. Gorbachev rescued a lot of them," Mr. Maltsev said.

Q: How united is the group?

A: Probably not very much, the analysts said, and yesterday's reports of "illness" striking some of the members seemed to indicate that the group may already be splitting apart. "I don't see how this coalition can hold together for very long, said Harley Balzer of Georgetown University. "They're after different things."

Q: What is the significance of yesterday's apparent shake-up in the group's membership?

A: That's one that no one seems to be able to answer yet, though analysts said that divisions have likely developed over the delicate issues of what to do about Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Gorbachev and what to do about the defiant crowds gathered in the streets of Moscow.

Q: Why didn't the coup leaders take immediate action against the crowds? And why wasn't Mr. Yeltsin arrested immediately?

A: They may have naively expected the presence of tanks to prompt immediate obedience, based on the days when the population was "paralyzed by fear," said Richard Pipes of Harvard University. But in today's climate, he said, "People in Moscow have seen pictures of what happened in Prague, and what happened in Berlin, and they are no longer afraid."

L Q: Do Mr. Yeltsin's loyalists have any chance of prevailing?

A: That depends mostly, in the short term, on how much force the new rulers decide to exert. And if they decide to use their tanks, the question becomes one of army unity and loyalty to the new government. "You can hear the echo of Stalin's laughter here," Mr. Gustafson said. "And the thing which he would have said to Yeltsin's face, is, 'How many divisions do you have?' "

Q: If this group remains in power, what sort of policies can we expect from them?

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