Hard-liners failed with 'soft' coup Plotters lacked needed ruthlessness THE SOVIET CRISIS


August 22, 1991|By Scott Shane

As a perky Diane Sawyer peppered a smiling Boris N. Yeltsin with questions on ABC's "Nightline" Tuesday night, two questions might have occurred to even a novice student of coups d'etat.

Why, 48 hours into the Soviet hard-liners' seizure of power, was their most prominent opponent, incidentally also the most popular politician in the Soviet Union, still free and in robust health, keeping up his scathing defiance of the junta from the comfort of his office a mile from the Kremlin?

Why, moreover, was an American television star-journalist permitted to enter the country after the coup, arrange an interview with Mr. Yeltsin by telephone, travel to his building, carry a videocassette out and transmit it by satellite to New York?

As the coup against Mikhail S. Gorbachev crumbled yesterday, the greatest puzzle was the apparent incompetence and softheartedness of its makers. By failing to arrest or otherwise remove Mr. Yeltsin or to cut communications with the rest of the world, the State Committee on the State of Emergency all but guaranteed a collapse so speedy that news readers around the world did not have time to master the pronunciation of its members' names.

The inside story of the coup's plotting is unlikely to emerge for some time, though its leaders, as they scramble to absolve themselves and heap blame on their comrades, are likely to reveal some details.

Possibly, the explanation is as simple as it seems: the wondrous stupidity of the Soviet apparatchik. The coup leaders, after all, are part of a government that, in a well-educated, resource-rich country, cannot provide edible sausage, working telephones, basic antibiotics or simple automobiles to most people. Hapless at most tasks, they might be expected not to pull off a coup with precision and elan.

Perhaps the tunnel vision imposed by their system played a role. Understanding authority as a pecking order in the hierarchy, they removed their boss, Mr. Gorbachev. But they overlooked the greater authority that Mr. Yeltsin commands by virtue of his popularity and his election victories, unknown values in Communist politics.

Accustomed to censoring their own news media while not bothering to edit foreign correspondents' dispatches to foreign audiences, perhaps they forgot that the old shortwave jamming machine had been switched off and that anything reported in the West would soon be crackling out of radios in millions of Soviet homes.

But surely there is more to the coup's failure than bureaucratic bungling. There is another possibility: The coup failed because its organizers themselves had been infected by six years of spreading democracy.

They shared too many of the goals of reform. They lacked the requisite ruthlessness for a hard coup, in which Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Yeltsin and the first few thousand protesters would have been killed. They tried for a soft coup, a coup in disguise, but the Soviet public was neither naive enough to mistake it nor jaded enough to swallow it.

Soviet liberals have, with understandable venom and considerable justice, been telling the morning shows on U.S. television that the coup leaders are "a gang of criminals." If so, Mr. Gorbachev had appointed a gang of criminals to run his government. The State Committee on the State of Emergency consisted of his vice president, his prime minister, and his chiefs of defense, KGB and internal affairs. They did not exactly seize power Monday. They were in power before the coup and were implementing reforms.

Most of the coup leaders probably shared the initial goal of reform when it was started by a far more innocent Mr. Gorbachev in 1985, with the support of the KGB.

Mr. Gorbachev, for all his wavering, for all his declarations of fidelity to communist ideals, had the courage to stick with the logic of reform even when the disadvantages became clear: The Communist Party would lose its monopoly on power, Marxist principles would have to be abandoned, and substantial powers would have to be ceded to newly nationalist republics.

The line that proved most difficult for the Soviet rulers to cross was the end of empire, the end of a U.S.S.R. consisting of 15 republics managed on most matters from Moscow. Mr. Gorbachev himself balked at Lithuanian independence, inflicting economic and military pressure in a botched attempt to make an example of the first republic to attempt to break out of the Soviet jail.

But the Lithuanians remained uncowed, and Mr. Yeltsin lent the broad shoulder of Russia in support.

Then, last spring, Russian coal miners crippled industry with a political strike in support of Mr. Yeltsin, underlining the power of the democracy movement. Ultimately a realist, Mr. Gorbachev recognized the futility of holding out longer and caved in on the empire issue.

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