From hero to economist, Yeltsin survives Coup's enemy seized the day SOVIET COUP: A YEAR LATER

August 16, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- The coup that unfolded one year ago this week -- and then unraveled -- came about in the first place because of Boris N. Yeltsin.

The plotters moved against Mikhail S. Gorbachev, but they missed their aim, even from the start: It was Mr. Yeltsin they hated.

He was a reformed Communist, and, like a reformed sinner at a revival meeting, he had seen the light and was altogether filled with zeal about the misdeeds of his former comrades.

Mr. Yeltsin -- today so often pictured as the beleaguered president of a sorely pressed nation -- was in the summer of 1991 the very image of undaunted leadership.

First he won a popular election as president of the Russian republic, trouncing the Communist candidate. Then he did away with party cells in factories and the army. This was serious. And then, in merely days, he was to gain even more power in a new union treaty that he had forced Mr. Gorbachev to accept.

The old-line Communists couldn't stand him.

The union treaty, giving considerable authority to the individual republics within a new Soviet structure, was supposed to be signed on Tuesday, Aug. 20. Early Monday morning, Moscow Radio announced that Mr. Gorbachev had been confined to his dacha in the Crimea by "illness" and that a hitherto unheard of State Committee for the State of Emergency had taken over.

Gone was the union treaty. In fact, gone shortly thereafter was the union.

They hated Mr. Yeltsin, and so they moved against Mr. Gorbachev. Mr. Yeltsin mounted that famous tank, wondered if anybody was listening, proclaimed his resistance and brought down the entire system.

The nation learned that his careful cultivation of military commanders in the spring and summer of 1991 had been well worth the effort. In the end, no one in the military moved against him. The world learned that as the Communist Party's Public Enemy No. 1, Mr. Yeltsin commanded tremendous respect among ordinary Russians.

The ringleaders of the coup learned too late how thoroughly Mr. Yeltsin had stolen the ground from under them. A few drank themselves into stupors. One shot himself. All but two are now in jail.

Mr. Gorbachev survived but quickly faded into the background, a victim of his own caution.

Mr. Yeltsin was ideally suited to the role thrust upon him in August 1991. Decisive, articulate, clear, ready to press his advantage -- he had all the qualities that Mr. Gorbachev lacked.

He seized the moment and did away with the Communist Party. Later, when Mr. Gorbachev hemmed and hawed over reform, Mr. Yeltsin met with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus, and together they did away with the Soviet Union.

The coup that took place one long year in Russian history ago, that third week of August, with autumn very much in the air, was to be Mr. Yeltsin's moment.

Today, the so-called Commonwealth of Independent States is a dangerously uncomfortable union seething with old grudges and bloody ethnic conflicts.

Inside Russia, the Communists have been joined by plenty of others in their abuse of the Russian president, and the democrats' trumpets are no longer blowing. The economy is variously described as collapsing, in a tailspin or heading for a black hole.

Nikolai Pavlov, head of the Russian Unity faction in Parliament, called in June for all-out struggle against "this criminal, insane, anti-Russian, anti-people and anti-state regime."

Mr. Yeltsin's government boldly embarked in January on a course of abrupt economic reform. Since then industrial output has shrunk 14 percent, exports are down 30 percent, and imports are down 18 percent. The inflation rate in the first four months of the year was 740 percent.

People walk about with sacks full of rubles to do their ordinary shopping, bringing to mind visions of Germany before Adolf Hitler. The government sent a railroad box car stuffed with cash to Krasnoyarsk to pay off chemical workers' back wages. Millions of workers are on mandatory vacations, which many think will lead directly to the unemployment line in the fall.

At the same time, the government is coming under heavy pressure to back away from the reforms, primarily from the managers of the big, state-owned industries. And they've got a lot of pressure to wield.

As Arkady Volsky, the industrialists' leader, said recently, "Power belongs to those who have property and money. At present it is not the government but industrial managers who have both."

Russia clearly needs more than a defiant hero standing on a tank.

Mr. Yeltsin, though, has proved over the last year that he's no rabble-rouser. His program, under the guidance of Yegor T. Gaidar, the prime minister, is serious. For good or bad, Mr. Yeltsin has secured the support of the International Monetary Fund, and the first billion dollars out of a package that could total $24 billion is on its way here. Last month, Western leaders finally woke up to the realization that Mr. Yeltsin's policies are far more focused and substantive than any Mr. Gorbachev produced.

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