By Frank Csongos/Jean-Christophe Peuch
The first news of a coup attempt taking place in the Soviet Union left Western nations feeling concerned but ultimately powerless. The United States led Western reaction opposing the effort to depose Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, saying it put the country at odds with the world community. A recently reunified Germany cautiously reiterated those thoughts, while French President Francois Mitterrand took a decidedly different tack, as RFE/RL correspondents Frank Csongos and Jean-Christophe Peuch explain:
Washington, 16 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As news reached the West about a Soviet coup in progress, then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker determined that Washington did not have a great deal of leverage against the plotters. It did, however, have one important diplomatic card to play -- denying the so-called "Gang of Eight" any political legitimacy.
Baker also passed word to the Soviet military that any use of force against civilians would be unacceptable. Baker said that "no army of the people can fire on its people."
Helmut Sonnenfeldt is an expert on Russia and a visiting scholar on foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, an independent Washington think tank. Sonnenfeldt spoke in Washington to RFE/RL on the 10th anniversary of the putsch. He described the coup attempt this way:
"It was an effort by the most conservative elements in the Soviet Union at the time to either get rid of Gorbachev or, at least, to neutralize him, because he was going too far in reform and in dismantling the Soviet Union."
As events unfolded, then-U.S. President George Bush called the coup attempt "an affront to the goals and aspirations that the Soviet peoples have been nurturing over the past year." He said it put the Soviet Union "at odds with the world community."
Baker flew to Brussels to discuss the events in Moscow with other NATO foreign ministers. RFE/RL's Frank Csongos was chief diplomatic correspondent for United Press International at the time and flew with Baker. Csongos remembers that Baker seemed nervous during the flight and told him that "the stakes are high."
In his memoirs, Baker said he felt "powerless." He said he kept waiting for news that KGB and Interior Ministry troops had overrun the barricades, killing Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the process. But that scenario never happened.
Sonnenfeldt says Yeltsin deserves a lot of credit for standing firm against the coup plotters:
"Yeltsin emerged as the hero, in a way, in supporting the release of Gorbachev, but in fact then used the opportunity to reduce Gorbachev's power."
Sonnenfeldt said the U.S. administration was concerned that a coup could lead to rampant nationalism and violence, and jeopardize the safety of the huge Soviet nuclear arsenal. He said there was some uneasiness about Yeltsin in Washington and that President Bush appreciated that Gorbachev had not stood in the way of official German reunification less than a year before.
Because of this, Germany -- more than any other Western European nation -- was paying close attention to the events in Moscow. Gorbachev enjoyed enormous sympathy among the German population and the country's political leadership for his perceived role in Germany's reunification.
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was one of the first Western leaders to criticize the coup attempt. But Kohl also did not want to upset Soviet Vice President Gennady Yanayev and the seven other members of the State Committee of the State of Emergency. He did not want them to try to reverse the reunification process.
Heinz Timmermann heads the Russian Studies department at the Berlin-based Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, or Foundation for Social and Political Studies. In an interview with RFE/RL, Timmermann recalled the early German reaction:
"Our condemnation was not too strong because we had a special problem here in Germany: We still had 400,000 [Soviet] troops stationed [on our Eastern territories], which would leave only in 1994. Nobody knew what these troops would do. At the time, we suspected that the putschists were trying to exert some influence on them, and we had not forgotten the use of force in the Baltics in the beginning of 1991."
Timmermann was referring to violent actions taken against nationalist movements in the Baltic republics of Latvia and Lithuania. Gorbachev had decided to counter what he described as "attempts to restore bourgeois order" in Lithuania. On the night of 12-13 January 1991, Soviet troops moved to take over the television station in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. The operation left 15 people dead and many wounded. Within days, Soviet troops struck again in the Latvian capital, Riga, killing four.
Timmermann says another reason why the German leadership was careful not to condemn the Moscow hard-liners too strongly was that it was not yet clear how poorly organized the attempted coup was: "We didn't know -- you must understand that -- that the putsch had been organized in such a dilettante way. This we did not know. We then thought that when the [Soviets] organize a putsch, they are better prepared."
Similar fears were shared in the French capital, Paris, where then President Francois Mitterrand took a rather unique stance among Western leaders.
In an interview on French television shortly after the news broke, Mitterrand refrained from condemning the coup. Mitterrand described the putschists as the "new Soviet leaders" and said they would be judged "on their actions."
Mitterrand's statement was generally interpreted as a sign that he was tacitly supporting the plotters.
It wasn't until the next day, 20 August, that the French government started to describe the events in Moscow as a coup against Gorbachev's legitimate power. In an apparent attempt to live down the disastrous impression left by Mitterrand's comments, France even offered to host a Russian government-in-exile.
Political analysts today believe Mitterrand's initial reaction shows that he saw a coup as a "fait accompli," a virtual certainty which the West should tolerate rather than oppose.
Daniel Vernet heads the international desk at the French daily "Le Monde." In an interview with RFE/RL, he recalled that Mitterrand had said long before the coup attempt that Gorbachev's perestroika policy was progressing too fast and that it could backfire and prompt the re-emergence of an authoritarian regime.
Vernet believes that what he describes as Mitterrand's "political faux pas" could be explained by his fear that Europe could revert to a Cold War-like situation and by his hope that the plotters could control the disintegration of the Soviet bloc:
"I do not think that Mitterrand wanted to express his support to the putschists. Rather, one could even think that Mitterrand expected two things from them: Firstly, to restore order and, secondly, to continue Gorbachev's policy in a more restrained way, without playing the sorcerer's apprentices. But this is a rather apocryphal interpretation and nobody can say for sure."
In his recollection of the final months of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev's then foreign policy advisor, Andrei Grachev, said Mitterrand was not a great supporter of the independence movements in the Soviet republics, fearing such actions would bring chaos to Europe. He said this explains Mitterrand's tense relations with Yeltsin.
Grachev wrote that "Mitterrand felt that the best solution for the USSR and for Europe as a whole would be the reconstitution of a unified state, on a federal and democratic basis, in two or three years' time. Otherwise, all of Europe would move into a phase of unpredictable anarchy."
In July 1991, one month before the failed Soviet coup, fighting broke out in the former Yugoslavia, adding fuel to Mitterrand's concerns about European peace and stability.
To some observers, Mitterrand was a man of the past, a leader who refused to keep up with geopolitical changes affecting the European continent. To others, he had a clear vision of the consequences that would follow the fall of the Soviet Union.
Vernet believes there is truth in both judgments. He says Mitterrand, on the one hand, clearly saw the dramatic consequences such changes in the Soviet Union would bring. On the other hand, he was swimming against a strong current of irreversible political change, begun with the reunification of Germany and Gorbachev's policy of perestroika.