Classic Gorby THE SOVIET CRISIS

August 25, 1991|By PETER H. FRANK | PETER H. FRANK,Peter Frank is a financial writer for The Sun.

It's a conspiracy theorist's dream come true.

A popular leader is forcibly removed and tens of thousands of people are outraged. Demanding the leader's return, the crowds swell throughout the land. Shock has turned to anger. The will of a united people -- laborers, homemakers, students, lawmakers -- grows to an awesome force.

Those who secretly plotted the coup back down, overwhelmed by the sudden and unexpected uprising. Their years of planning, secret meetings, code names and deceptive memos conclude in stunning failure. The leader returns to renewed popularity and power.

But wait!

What if it wasn't the real thing at all? What if it was just a hoax, the whole episode a Machiavellian public relations scheme concocted in the dark anterooms of some desperate institution meant only to cement the power of a waning leader?

With allegations swirling, listen to the response: "Some critics will say [we] made a . . . mistake. Some cynics say that we planned the whole thing. The truth is, we're not that dumb, and we're not that smart."

Mikhail Gorbachev? Gennady Yanayev?

Nope. Donald R. Keough, president of The Coca-Cola Co., answering suspicions in 1985 that the soda-maker plotted the disastrous introduction of New Coke to bolster the position of its older, long-time leader.

Of course, no one really believed that Coke had engineered the fiasco.

For one thing, the combined market share of the new and old Cokes has never come close to the popularity Coke enjoyed the year before it was replaced. Even if it had, people saw little reason not to believe Mr. Keough's "not that smart" crack.

In Mr. Gorbachev's defense, few people would really believe a Soviet leader could do something so cruel and calculated. Right?

So how is it possible that we might even imagine there was a private sordid plot behind the public sordid plot? Could Mr. Gorbachev have masterminded his own temporary overthrow? Will Coke become the official soft-drink of the Kremlin? Just because Coke and politics share the fact they're both sugar-water pumped up with gas, does that mean there's a connection?

The cryptic response from a Coca-Cola spokeswoman who said her name was Polly: "You know you're the real thing when you're brought back by popular demand." (It's what they don't say that counts.)

Mr. Gorbachev could not be reached for comment.

Consider a few facts and decide for yourself. (While you ponder, remember that Saddam Hussein claimed credit last week for Mr. Gorbachev's downfall.)

* In 1978, Coca-Cola was named the official drink of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. "The Soviet Ministry of Health has investigated this drink and has found it fully acceptable for use in the U.S.S.R.," Vladimir A. Koval, a vice chairman of the Soviet Olympic committee, said at the time.

* In 1979, Coca-Cola becomes the first cola in China (a Communist country right next door).

* Mr. Gorbachev comes to power March 11, 1985. The next month, Coke announces its purge.

* The chairman of Coca-Cola at the time the putsch takes place? Roberto C. Goizueta, a Cuban-born executive and former classmate of Fidel Castro.

* Within weeks of the New Coke overthrow, 40,000 calls and letters pour in to Coca-Cola's Georgia headquarters. Soon thereafter, the company relents.

* In late 1986, Coca-Cola signs a long-term agreement that calls for the bottling of Coke in the Soviet Union and opens the sale of its cola to the masses. The next day Mr. Gorbachev promises to observe the terms of the SALT II treaty.

* In 1989, Mr. Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, arrive in Warsaw and were greeted with a small crowd holding posters saying "Perestroika is the thing."

* In the center of Moscow, prominently displayed over the head of Russia's greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, and just blocks from the Kremlin is a huge Coca-Cola sign -- all red and white.

The list goes on.

The question now is: will this lull after the coup -- this pause that refreshes memories of long-ago purges -- end with a more powerful Mikhail Gorbachev? Can he retain his position as leader or will the apparatchik versions of our Dr Peppers be the beneficiaries? And how long can the hard-liners maintain shelf space, trying to teach the world to sing the praises of Marx and Lenin?

Anyway, he's back. Just call him Gorby Classic.

(Next week: Boris Yeltsin, the Uncola.)

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