The coup's ninth man

Melor Sturua

August 23, 1991|By Melor Sturua

MIKHAIL Gorbachev has returned to Moscow, reinstated as president of the Soviet Union. A lot of people -- including the leaders of the West -- are happy it turned out this way. Gorbomania may even rise again.

But in every way that matters, Gorbachev is a loser, not the winner. In the long run, I suspect that he will become a one-term president or, to be more optimistic, he will be re-elected as a ceremonial figurehead, the Soviet version of the queen of England.

The real power will belong to the republics, especially to new Russia, to Boris Yeltsin, which is why Yeltsin is not the least interested in climbing to what some people might mistakenly call a "higher office." It is time for the U.S. and the West to understand this distinction, in the same way the difference between Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street is clear to all. When George Bush travels to London he doesn't discuss NATO policy with Queen Elizabeth. I understand that from a purely human point of view, Bush can't abruptly abandon the Soviet leader right now. Gorbachev is the constitutionally elected president -- though he was never popularly elected.

But sentiments aside, the lessons of the past and the bitter lesson of the present must be translated into a more coherent policy toward the Soviet Union. Unequivocal U.S. support of Gorbachev during the drama of the coup was noble, but less courageous and much less correct. Today, backing Gorbachev would not be noble, courageous or correct.

Right after the reports of the coup reached Bush in Maine, he tried and failed to contact Gorbachev in the Crimea. But, as we all know, he succeeded in getting through to Boris Yeltsin in Moscow. (It wasn't until after the coup collapsed that Bush and Gorbachev could talk by telephone.)

Of course, Bush's failure to make contact with Gorbachev had a prosaic explanation: KGB units were holding the Soviet leader incommunicado. As for Yeltsin, he did not surrender.

But this practical, obvious explanation has symbolic import as well: It reflects the political situation in the Soviet Union. It represents not only the present but the future of democracy. It is where the real forces of progress are.

The failure to understand this reflects the shortcomings and, let me be frank, the shortsightedness of Bush and his administration. I understand the value and impact of personal relations and chemistry between Bush and Gorbachev. But the reluctance of the American president to recognize the profound change of power-sharing in the Soviet Union and the shift of real power from the center toward Russia and the other republics could only have encouraged the coup makers.

I know that it isn't appropriate now to criticize Gorbachev, who just underwent such a horrible ordeal. But the naked and harsh truth is that he shares the guilt and responsibility for events that led to the coup.

He was, in effect, the ninth man on the eight-man coup committee. His indecisiveness, his unwillingness to purge the hard-liners from government, his attempts to combine a quest for democracy with obsolete socialist dogmas, his inflexibility in dealing with liberal forces like Yeltsin -- all made the putsch inevitable.

Unfortunately, the U.S. and other Western countries did very little to dissuade the Soviet president from that kind of course.

The military coup in Moscow was a last hurrah of the old dictatorial regime. The coup leaders were doomed because communism was doomed. And Gorbachev lost because he didn't understand this fundamental truth. He paid for his timidity.

Now Bush must understand the same truth. He should talk with the new leaders of the Soviet Union, not only by telephone, and not only in times of emergency.

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Melor Sturua, a columnist for Izvestia, is visiting professor at the 1/2 University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

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