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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Five Years After The Moscow Coup

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 19 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The failed coup in Moscow five years ago today generated enormous hopes and equally enormous fears among the peoples of the region and the world.

Neither the greatest hopes nor the most extreme fears, however, have proved to have been justified.

Instead, the 15 post-communist states that emerged following the collapse of the coup and the subsequent disintegration of the U.S.S.R. have developed in ways sometimes encouraging and sometimes not. But in every case they have largely avoided the two extremes.

Following the coup, many in the former U.S.S.R. and the West expected that Russia and her neighbors would soon be able to overcome their past, that they would make a quick and relatively painless transition to democracy and to free market economies, and that they would quickly integrate into Western institutions.

None of these hopes has proved true. Most significantly, none of the countries have been able to escape their past. Most have refused to face their past honestly. As a result, these various pasts -- Soviet, Russian imperial, and otherwise -- remain far more influential than would have been the case had they done so.

None of these countries has found the transition to democracy and a free market economy quick or easy. Some countries have made important strides in one or both directions, but none has achieved its goals entirely. Some have gone off in an ever more authoritarian direction.

And despite the oft-expressed hope that the post-Soviet states would quickly integrate into the West, politically and economically, that has not happened. This pattern reflects the past and present of these states and the unwillingness of the West to bear the costs that such integration would entail.

But if these hopes have not proved out, neither have the greatest fears: the concern that the post-Soviet states would become a "Yugoslavia with nuclear weapons," the worry that at least some of the 15 post-Soviet states might themselves disintegrate, and the fear that these countries might relapse into authoritarianism.

None of the countries on which Soviet nuclear weapons were stationed have used them. Indeed, under pressure from the West, all nuclear weapons have been concentrated in the Russian Federation. Even more, with the exception of the long-standing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, there has been remarkably little violence even of the conventional kind between the new states.

Nor, despite widespread expectations and the continuing challenge of the Chechens, have any of the post-Soviet states disintegrated as many had predicted. Many of the new states are not entirely stable, but international pressure and the actions of the states themselves have prevented any "secession from secession," as Western analysts and politicians had called such a trend.

And while democracy has hardly become universal, there has been no wholesale reversion to authoritarianism, communist or nationalist. Some of the post-Soviet states are now best described as authoritarian, but most have taken important strides toward becoming more open and tolerant political systems.

Many in the region and the West, of course, still argue that the extremes are possible, indeed likely in a region which has little historical experience with moderation. But the developments of the five years since the coup suggest that the pessimists may be wrong and that most of these countries will be able to avoid the worst, even if they do not achieve the best.

For many of these states, that in itself is no small achievement. And thus it is something that should be celebrated rather than regretted on this anniversary of the coup that ushered in the new era.