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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- A Coup That Shook The World

Washington, 19 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Seven years ago today, an attempted coup in Moscow set off a series of shockwaves that continue to reverberate through the Russian Federation, her neighbors, and the world at large and define developments there.

When it began on August 19, the Soviet Union still existed, Mikhail Gorbachev was its president, and the post-Cold War international system appeared to be in order. When it ended three days later, each of these had been called into question.

But despite these dramatic changes that followed, the coup itself -- why it was organized, why it almost succeeded, and why it ultimately failed -- was in fact a manifestation of three underlying features of political life that continue to resonate there as well.

First, the August 1991 coup was made and opposed by two relatively small groups of people, each of which was convinced that the country faced a crisis and that its future depended entirely on the outcome of that crisis.

The Emergency Committee as events quickly showed had very few people behind it. But despite the heroism of the defenders of the Russian White House, the number of people involved there was small as well.

But both were united in a sense that the country would be doomed if the other won and by an understanding that the number of people actually involved in the political struggle was and would remain small.

Most people in the Soviet government and in the country at large did not participate on either side. Instead, they adopted a wait-and-see attitude and probably would have been willing to support whoever came out on top.

And that absence of involvement and sense that the country will develop by crisis rather than organically continues to characterize political life across the post-Soviet space.

Second, the coup almost succeeded and inevitably failed because individual loyalties to particular leaders proved to be greater than any attachment to political institutions.

The Emergency Committee that launched the coup thought it could count both on the deference of the population to anyone claiming to speak in the name of the government and on the obedience of their subordinates.

While members of the committee they may have been correct in their first assumption, they were clearly wrong on the second. Not only had the bonds of obedience already snapped, but their own all-too-obvious disobedience further severed the ties on which they had counted.

But those who opposed the coup, including Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, also adopted a personalist approach.

On the one hand, Yeltsin sought to portray himself as a personal hero-leader rather than an elected representative. And on the other, his demand that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev be returned to Moscow clearly had little to do with his respect for the office itself.

That absence of support for institutions independent of the people who occupy them continues to dominate political life in this region.

Indeed, it remains one of the major reasons why the people in so many post-Soviet states have found it difficult to make the transition to democracy, a system that insists that institutions are more important than the individuals who occupy them.

And third, the coup inevitably failed not so much because of the actions of those who opposed it but because the collapse of the coup and the ensuing developments served the interests of those who many supposed would be its most interested defenders.

By mid-1991, the officials on whom those who launched the coup thought they could count had in many cases already decided that they could profit more from reforms than from a return to the past.

Such officials thus did not support the coup. But even though most did not oppose it either, they rapidly changed their political affiliations in its aftermath in order to continue to benefit from the new circumstances.

And that pattern, one not typically revolutionary, has had some very serious consequences for political life in the post-Soviet states. It has meant that there has not been a clean break with the past in terms of those in power or in the ways they do business.

It has increased cynicism both about the declarations of these leaders and about the ideals -- democracy and free markets, for example -- that these now ex-communists claim to support.

Finally, it has left many in these countries with the sense that once again the elite has found a way to take care of itself at their expense, an attitude that may produce a revolution but is certainly not the product of one.

On the seventh anniversary of the aborted coup, Russia and many of its neighbors are developing in ways that reflect both the shockwaves of that event and the continuities it revealed -- a collection of new bottles that in many cases contain old wine.