Many Americans naturally assumed that last week's fleeting Soviet coup d'etat was aimed at stopping democracy. But the truth is not so simple.
If democracy was what worried the hard-liners, why did the tanks not roll in the spring of 1989, to halt the first free parliamentary elections? Why did they not move in the spring of 1990, when the Communist Party was forced to relinquish its seven-decade-old monopoly on power? The hard-liners were stronger then, the people more wary, and the chances for a coup to succeed far greater than they were shown to be last week.
The answer is that the putschists were not, first and foremost, worried about democracy, they were worried about empire. The coup started Monday because the Union Treaty was to be signed Tuesday, and the Union Treaty meant the end of the empire.
Mikhail S. Gorbachev, after many months of wavering and some bloody experiments with a tougher line in the Baltic republics, had finally accepted that membership in the new, improved U.S.S.R. would be voluntary. Only five of the 15 republics that make up the Soviet Union were expected to sign the Union Treaty on Tuesday, with perhaps four more to follow later on. The other six republics were saying they would not sign, and Mr. Gorbachev was at last implicitly accepting the fact that the republics not signing would become completely independent countries.
In the exhausting flow of political news from the East, it was easy to lose sight of the momentous nature of Mr. Gorbachev's concession. He was about to sign away a superpower. His treaty would have kissed a number of strategically important republics goodbye and handed over to the rest of the republics a considerable share of the Kremlin's power. The new country, or commonwealth, would even have a new name: not the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics but the Union of Sovereign Soviet Republics.
Here the hard-liners drew their hard line. Keeping all 15 republics in the empire and the power in the capital was clearly the coup-makers' prime goal in removing Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Their coup's almost instant collapse unquestionably has accelerated the shriveling of central power and the break-up of the U.S.S.R. -- a messy, dangerous but inevitable consequence of the end of Soviet totalitarianism.
Since the first Union Treaty was cobbled together by Lenin and Stalin in 1922, the U.S.S.R. has been an artificial and contradictory construction. Imagine Finland and Afghanistan as parts of a single state, despite having nothing in common in geography, climate, culture, or language. The Soviet republics of Latvia, on the Baltic Sea, and Turkmenistan, 2,000 miles to the south in Central Asia, to choose two almost at random, are no more alike.
The diverse republics shared only the dual yoke of communist ideology and Russian imperialism, neatly captured by the fact that in every republic, by Soviet tradition, the second secretary of the Communist Party was an ethnic Russian. The first secretary was of the local nationality, a Lithuanian or a Kirgiz or a Moldavian, but ordinarily an obedient one, sometimes even one raised in Moscow and unable to speak the local language.
For many republics, therefore, assertion of sovereignty or outright secession means not blind nationalism, ethnic chauvinism or economic isolationism, as many in the West assume. It means getting out of the "prison of nations," as both the czarist empire and the Soviet empire have been called. Sovereignty for a Soviet republic is simply a necessary precondition for freedom -- as the junta's botched takeover has underscored.
So what will happen now?
The republics, led by Russia's Boris N. Yeltsin, are going to rewrite the Union Treaty to slash the powers of the center still further. Mr. Gorbachev will have to acquiesce, just as he acquiesced Friday to Mr. Yeltsin's demand that new defense, police and KGB chiefs appointed by Mr. Gorbachev Thursday be replaced.
The existing draft Union Treaty already would make member republics sovereign states, with the right to establish direct diplomatic ties with other countries and sole control over their own land and resources. But the republics would delegate certain major powers to the central government: control of the borders, command of the armed forces, the right to issue a single currency, and a share in tax revenues and gold and diamond reserves.
Hence the draft Union Treaty was a compromise document, roughly following Mr. Gorbachev's contradictory formula of "strong republics, strong center." Russian radicals were angry that Mr. Yeltsin was not demanding more for the sprawling Russian Federation, which accounts for more than half the Soviet population, three-fourths of its land mass and the lion's share of its energy resources. But Mr. Yeltsin, conscious that every one of Gorbachev's concessions increased the threat of a hard-line coup, chose to make a deal.