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Russia: Analysis From Washington--What Died With The Coup?

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 21 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The disappearance of the Soviet Union from the map of the world was beyond doubt the most obvious result of the failure of the August 1991 coup in Moscow.

But three other outcomes of that attempted putsch may have had equally important consequences for Russia, Russia's neighbors and the world.

The failure of the coup led to the destruction of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union as an organization. Although Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev tried briefly to resuscitate it, he failed and the system of nomenklatura control and of party penetration of all aspects of life disappeared.

As a result, power on the territory of the Soviet Union passed into the hands of government bodies. And because these bodies -- unlike the CPSU -- were organized almost exclusively on a republic basis, the ability of the central Soviet government to hold things together quickly evaporated.

That led to the death of the U.S.S.R., but it also meant the end of the authoritarian political system that Lenin had imposed on Russia following the 1917 revolution. Thus, it opened the way for the emergence of a far more participatory political system than any Russia and many of its neighbors had ever enjoyed in the past.

The collapse of the August 1991 putsch had the effect of discrediting communism as an ideology in Russia, among her neighbors, and in the West. While many people remained attached to some of the ideas of communism, no one in the immediate aftermath of the coup could hope to win much political support by advocating a simple return to the communist past.

Consequently, the still numerous groups who saw such a return as in their interest were forced to couch their programs in a different language than they had used in Soviet times. That both forced these groups to recast their programs in terms that disavowed the worst features of the Soviet system and allowed democracy to emerge in at least some of the post-Soviet states.

The failure of the coup discredited the Soviet military and the Soviet security organs in the eyes of the population. By discrediting the first, the coup had the effect of eliminating public support for the maintenance of the only institution that had allowed Moscow to claim the status of a superpower.

That has contributed to a widespread sense among Russians that they could no longer compete on the world stage with the United States and to the pathetic condition of the Russian forces that have been dispatched to crush the Chechen bid for independence.

And by discrediting the security organs, the failure of the coup removed one of the most powerful obstacles to the development of more open political systems in this region. Even where these institutions have survived, they have been subject to much more public scrutiny and hostility, attitudes that by themselves had served to limit these traditional forms of state control in this region.

Perhaps the main reason that so little attention has been given to these consequences of the coup is that none of them now looks to be irreversible. Indeed, in Russia and in several other countries, the communist party remains the most organized political group and some of its members appear to retain aspirations for rule in the old-fashioned way.

Moreover, as the recent elections in Russia showed, communism as an idea has gained support, given the difficulties of the transitions to democracy and a free market. That represents a major retreat from the situation of five years ago.

And the security services of Russia and her neighbors, if not their militaries, have also experienced a kind of revival, one that threatens democratic freedoms in a number of countries.

All these developments naturally are disturbing to those who had hoped these forces had been consigned to the dustbin of history. But it is a measure of this new growth and of historical amnesia in the region and the West that the impact of the coup on each of them has been neglected on this, the fifth anniversary of its failure.

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