Tribune leader, 30 August 1991
The extraordinary events of the past fortnight in Moscow, Leningrad and the other major cities of the Soviet Union have transformed world politics. The Soviet Union, the second super-power, has imploded and might not survive the shock. “Actually existing socialism” is dead.
The way it happened was simple but bizarre. Key figures in the Soviet Communist Party leadership and the military-industrial complex, the latter for 20 years the only dynamic element of the Soviet economy, decided to take in hand the country’s spiralling economic and political crisis, using as their pretext the imminent signing of a new union treaty which would have given more autonomy to the Soviet republics. For 24 hours after the August 19 coup, it seemed that the military-industrial complex had won. The western media were full of predictions of a new cold war. Western politicians talked of doing business with the junta.
Instead, the coup collapsed. Boris Yeltsin came out from the Russian Parliament and talked to a tank crew in front of camera. Soon a few hundred sympathisers were there too. Demonstrations against the coup were organised by informal networks of activists in the major cities. Slowly but surely, it became apparent that the junta had not thought about the international media, had underestimated the people of Russia’s cities and had overlooked the depth of resentment against the centre in the non-Russian republics. The people were sick of their lot, but the worst possible alternative was a return to a brutally oppressive yesterday. The demonstrations were not, for the most part, large, but they were an embarrassingly public problem for the military. It became clear early on that the conscript soldiers were unhappy about firing on their countrymen.
The junta panicked and surrendered. Mikhail Gorbachev came back to Moscow and office (although for how long he will stay there is a moot point). The settling of scores began. Under pressure from Yeltsin, the guilty men – nearly the entire leadership of the Communist Party and of the military and security apparatuses – were named and replaced. As the implications of the coup became clear at the end of last week, republic after republic declared independence from the Soviet Union, The authority of the CPSU simply collapsed. Last weekend, struggling to keep abreast of events, Gorbachev resigned as general secretary of the party, recommended dissolution of the its central committee and issued a decree confiscating all its property. Yeltsin issued a string of decrees suspending the party in Russia and several hard-line newspapers and transferring powers from the Kremlin to his own Russian republican Government. Other republics moved against their communist parties as the week went on.
On Tuesday, in what seemed a last-ditch attempt to assert his political authority and prevent a total collapse of the union, Gorbachev threatened to resign unless a new union treaty was signed. Meanwhile Yeltsin came under fire for suggesting that republican borders might be revised to protect Russian minorities in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan. As Tribune went to press, the very existence of the Soviet Union hung in the balance.
Apart from Yeltsin’s worrying remarks on changing borders and the suspensions of the communist parties and the newspapers, which should be lifted at once, it is difficult for a democratic socialist to be other than pleasantly stunned by most of what has happened so far. The “actually existing socialism” fathered by the CPSU was an economic disaster, corrupt, bureaucratic, mendacious, oppressive and militarist; the union was held together only by brute force. The system’s passing is not worth mourning.
Nevertheless, it would be foolish to be too optimistic about the prospects for the Soviet Union or whatever collection of independent states takes its place. Every one of the republics is in a state of severe economic crisis and most are riven by ethnic tensions. There is a constant threat of those tensions becoming bloody and, as the economic crisis deepens with the approach of winter, there is a real danger that authoritarian politics will become increasingly attractive not only to those who supported the failed coup but also to the populists and nationalists who joined the liberals and democrats to resist it. It is imperative that the affluent west pre-empts any such lurch into authoritarianism, first by immediately pledging food aid to avert starvation and secondly by formulating something akin to the Marshall Aid programme of the forties to revive the Soviet economy. Hoping for the best is not enough.