Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia Report: August 25, 2006

August 25, 2006, Volume 6, Number 16
PRAGUE, August 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Through the winter of 1990-91 the glue that held together the Soviet Union was becoming unstuck.

On August 20, 1991, a meeting was scheduled to sign a union treaty that would give the republics more independence. But two days before, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's chief of staff and other Politburo members arrived at the presidential dacha in Crimea putting the president and his family under house arrest.

This move unleashed a chain of events that threatened to engulf the country in a bloody civil war.

"I call on you, my comrade officers, soldiers, and sailors, do not take action against the people -- against your fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters," Russian Soviet Republic Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi, a decorated hero of the war in Afghanistan, appealed to the Soviet armed forces on August 19, 1991.

"I appeal to your honor, your reason, and your heart. Today the fate of the country, the fate of its free and democratic development, is in your hands," Rutskoi said.

Rutskoi's plea was for the most part heeded. Tanks took up positions, but no soldiers fired on the thousands of Muscovites who had taken to the streets to oppose the plotters.

"Just after 8 a.m., [human rights activist] Yury Samodurov rang and told me to switch on the television," activist Yelena Bonner, widow of Nobel Prize laureate Andrei Sakharhov, told RFE/RL. "I switched it on and saw all those people and everything that was happening. I began to phone everyone. It emerged that I was now the center of a rather large circle of people. I told them all: 'Go to the Moscow City Soviet.' Nobody really knew what was going on. Then, around 9 or 10, they called from the City Council to say that a lot of our people were there and that they were heading for the White House. Of course, I went to the White House as well."

Russian Republic President Boris Yeltsin provided the defining symbol of defiance. Standing on top of a tank, with the Russian flag in the background, he called for mass resistance.

Gradually, the tide turned. The coup crumbled and Gorbachev returned to Moscow from Crimea to find a starkly changed balance of power.

And as Yeltsin told Radio Liberty just after the coup, the Soviet Union had changed in Gorbachev's absence.

"I think it is important too that President Gorbachev has returned to a different Russia, to a different country," Yeltsin said. "It seems to me -- and yesterday I spent half the day with him discussing the future course of reforms and economic transformation -- that he has at last understood that without democracy, without the development of democracy, without radical reforms -- and not the sort of quiet reforms during which coup d'etats of this sort can happen -- that we can't go further. It seems to me too that he has understood the need in fact to end the ruling role of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union."

But building democracy in Russia -- to say nothing of most of the other post-Soviet republics -- has proved a daunting task.

The war in Chechnya, clampdowns on media and NGOs, the Yukos affair, the appointment rather than election of regional governors, the hobbling of all political opposition are all black marks against Russia's democratic record in the last 15 years.

James Nixey, the manager of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, thinks Russia's experiment with liberal democracy is over.

"If you look at President [Vladimir] Putin's very high approval ratings and if you look at the fact that living standards have risen quite considerably since 2000 and the fact that you have a leader who is strong and independent and doesn't give off the same kind of vibes as President Yeltsin, then that is actually far more important to [Russians] than the appointment of governors or NGOs," Nixey says.

And gone today is the neat demarcation between the plotters and those camped outside the White House, between democrats and their opponents.

In 2004, Putin awarded one of the coup plotters, former Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, Russia's Order of Merit medal for "high achievements in useful, societal activities."

A recent poll by the Moscow-based Levada Center shows that, with the benefit of hindsight, people's attitudes toward the plotters and the August 1991 events have changed somewhat.

Fifteen years after the events, 52 percent of Russians say that both the plotters and Yeltsin had been in the wrong.

Yury Levada, the head of the polling agency, says that democracy these days is not high on Russians' list of priorities.

"People don't [think] of democracy and democratic institutions, universal elections, and other [things] as very important," Levada told RFE/RL. "The subject of concern for Russian people is family, the economic situation, finances, inflation, unemployment, criminality, and other [things]."

The question of Putin's succession and the 2008 presidential election will be a test for Russian democracy.

"Whether or not President Putin stays in power, and changes or adjusts or abolishes or alters the constitution to enable him to stay in power will show us an awful lot about the true nature of Russia," analyst Nixey says.

After 15 years of a rocky transition, Russians for the moment appear content to waive their human rights in return for stability and rising living standards. The drama of 1991 seems as much a part of history today as the Soviet Union itself. (Luke Allnutt)

Fifteen years after the failed coup that triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union and transformed his own life, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev talks to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service about the events of August 1991 and their legacy.

RFE/RL: In his annual address to the Federal Assembly in 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." Do you agree with such an interpretation of our recent history?

Mikhail Gorbachev: I have said this on many occasions, and I will say it again: I agree. When, during a period of widespread reform, glasnost came along and lit up the darker corners of the situation in our country, it seemed as though all of society started moving and talking. It turned out that the people had something to say and that they had someone to speak to. At this time I had already been saying that the way of democracy, glasnost, and economic reform was the way to go.

Yet I also warned against the destructive nature of what was happening. Things certainly needed to change, but we did not need to destroy that which had been built by previous generations. We had to deprive ourselves of some things, yes, but this was the unfortunate cost. After the putsch, when the real danger of the country coming apart arose, I continued to speak out in the same vein. I emphasized that the dissolution of a country that was not only powerful, but that, during perestroika, demonstrated that it was peaceful and that it accepted the basic principles of democracy, would be a tragedy. The end of the Cold War presented us with an unprecedented opportunity to pursue a new, peaceful policy.

RFE/RL: Some observers think that the State Committee for the Emergency Situation (GKChP) was the natural result of events then going on in the country, an effort to restrain the destructive processes that had arisen as a result of a systemic crisis of state management that, in turn, was created by ill-considered and sporadic reforms. Many of the participants of the so-called GKChP insist that this was the case. In you opinion, how fair is this point of view?

Gorbachev: It is nonsense. The natural result of events was the well-tuned process that was already under way in the spring of 1991. There was already the crisis that arose when people had to wait in long lines to purchase basic everyday goods. But in the big picture, after a long period of deliberation and debate, the anti-crisis program had finally started to materialize. Interestingly, it started out as a program initiated by the cabinet ministers, but then it was joined by all the republics and even the Baltic states, with their own special views on certain questions. The Baltic states didn't actually sign the document, but they decided to implement it anyway. By this time, we had found new solutions and ways of dealing with the situation, and we were ready to move forward.

This was natural for the democratization of the Soviet Union, and it was also natural for correcting the mistakes we had made earlier, particularly our delay in reforming the Communist Party and the federated union. The goal of the putsch was to interrupt this process. The putschists were at the top of the reactionary nomenklatura -- remember, many in the nomenklatura went ahead and worked with us, struggled with us. So this is my response to the common cliche that you were referring to. These people were unable to publicly overthrow the government, so they took a clandestine route, which they failed in, because difficult as the times were, nobody wanted to return to Stalinism.

RFE/RL: According to many public opinion polls, perestroika remains more popular abroad -- particularly in Europe and the United States -- than in the overwhelming majority of countries of the former Soviet Union. How would you, as the author of that initiative, explain such a difference in its reputation?

Gorbachev: The difference between the reputation perestroika has in Russia and abroad is explainable. Central and Eastern Europe gained independence. All of Europe got rid of the nightmare of potential confrontation -- moreover, a confrontation that could have developed into nuclear war in which Europe would suffer the most damage.

Your question mentioned the CIS countries. Without going into detail, I can tell you that neither the majority of their people nor their political elite desire a return to the way things were, or have any regrets about exiting the union. Recent polls have shown that the percentage of the population in these countries in favor of a return to the Soviet Union is only about 5-7 percent.

Russia is a special case. The reason I say this is because Russia lost the most as a result of the break-up, in terms of geopolitical stature, in terms of historical merit, in terms of political power it had by virtue of controlling other republics, and finally in terms of economic strength, having ceased to be the center of a major economic complex with a population of nearly a quarter-billion people. [Former Russian President Boris] Yeltsin and [former acting Russian Prime Minister Yegor] Gaidar's reforms destroyed the industrial potential of the country and reduced millions of people to poverty. Privatization was carried out in such a way that instead of contributing to a growing private sector, it only resulted in corruption and mass theft. The country was in shock, so people naturally looked back to the Soviet Union and the social guarantees that it offered. The guarantees were modest, but at least they were guarantees. Now, even though things are improving under Putin, I would still estimate that about 50 percent of our people live in poverty."

RFE/RL: In Russia, it is popular to argue -- and you hear this at the highest political levels -- that the end of the Cold War destabilized the modern world order; the solid bipolar international system was replaced by an unstable monopolar domination. Do you agree with this view?

Gorbachev: I've heard this view before -- that the Cold War supposedly offered a level of stability. I'm not sure where this view comes from -- whether it is part of someone's agenda or simply rooted in ignorance of the situation that developed in the mid-1980s. I was touring the country at the time and from all sides I heard the same question: "Will there be war? Please, do anything you can to not let it happen. Do anything, we'll live through whatever it takes, but just don't let it happen." Of course, many people forgot about this when the fear of war subsided.

The stability of the Cold War was a false one. It was tricky and dangerous. We in the Russian and U.S. governments knew better than anybody what the true situation was and what it could develop into, because we knew what point we were at in the arms race. We knew that the kind of technology that we were operating was powerful enough to put the fate of civilization in question should there be some sort of slip-up. We also knew that the arms race was leading to an unprecedented depletion of national resources.

RFE/RL: How do you assess the state of democracy and freedom of speech in Russia today?

Gorbachev: There are frequent accusations that democracy is being suppressed and that freedom of press is being stifled. The truth is, most Russians disagree with this viewpoint. We find ourselves at a difficult historical juncture. Our transition to democracy has not been a smooth one, and we must assess our successes and failures not in the context of some ideal, but in the context of our history. When Putin first came to power, I think his first priority was keeping the country from falling apart, and this required certain measures that wouldn't exactly be referred to as textbook democracy.

Yes, there are certain worrying tendencies. We still have certain stipulations and restrictions that cannot be explained by real dangers, or by the realities of life in Russia. However, I would not dramatize the situation. In the past 20 years, Russia has changed to such an extent that going back is now impossible.

RFE/RL: Let's turn the clock back 15 years. You suffered a horrible betrayal on the part of the people you considered your comrades-in-arms, as well as, perhaps, your personal friends. Not many people have experienced this. What personal lessons have you learned?

Gorbachev: We need to follow the path of democracy. We need to respect the people, and not turn them back into the herd that was bullied for decades and centuries in our country. We cannot resolve problems through coups. We need the people to participate in the changes that are being enacted in the country. Democracy needs to be effective. The law needs to be efficient. Thieves and corrupt officials should not feel safe. We need to follow the path of democracy toward a free, open, and prosperous country.

Jack Matlock was U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 1987 until 1991. He left Moscow just a week before the August 1991 coup attempt. RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Yury Zhigalkin spoke with Matlock about his recollections of those turbulent times.

RFE/RL: How did you first hear about the coup attempt and what did you think?

Jack Matlock: I heard about it the morning of August 19. We were on my wife's farm, and my first thought was that it would probably fail. I felt that the people who were announced as running it, it would appear, had not prepared things adequately. I thought there would be resistance and, in my judgment, they were not the sort of people who would put down the resistance ruthlessly. Or, if they tried to put it down, I thought the armed forces and others would probably not follow the orders. I thought that society had moved to the point that it was no longer acceptable, even in the, you might say, power structures, to put down a popular uprising.

RFE/RL: You left your post in Moscow just a week before. Did you have any indications that this scenario could take place or was it just out of the blue?

Matlock: I had been told confidentially in June by the then mayor of Moscow -- he actually wrote it in notes as we sat and talked about other things -- that a putsch was being prepared. And he named four people who, in fact, were involved later. He did this to get a message to [Russian Soviet Republic President Boris] Yeltsin, who was then in Washington. When Yeltsin was given the information, he said we must warn [Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev. And we tried to do so, but without naming the people involved. I think he misunderstood the warning, didn't take it seriously.

But when I heard that the coup had occurred and the people who were clearly behind it -- because they were on the committee that announced it was taking control -- this came not as a total surprise. But, at the same time, I didn't believe these people were capable of running the country and I thought that, particularly in Moscow, there would be sufficient opposition that, unless they were willing to enter into a bloody civil war, they could not prevail. And I didn't think they were willing to enter into that. And the first time I was interviewed on television the evening of August 19, I said, "This is not a done deal. I'm not at all sure this is going to hold."

RFE/RL: Did you detect any real worries in world capitals that the plotters might succeed?

Matlock: I think that most people looking from the outside thought they had succeeded. Because I think most people didn't understand the degree of change that had occurred in the Soviet Union at that time. The Soviet Union was not the Soviet Union that it had been five years before or even two years before. It had changed very rapidly. I had been privileged to be there and witness these changes. You know, most people -- including our governments -- didn't really grasp that.

Now, the American government, I think at the top they understood that this could happen. For one thing, I was reporting these various things to them. But, on the other hand, we didn't want to make predictions because, for one thing, one couldn't predict for sure what was going to happen. Second, if we had started predicting -- even in our intelligence reports -- that there might be a coup, this would have leaked and this would have influenced the situation in a negative way. So, there were very good reasons for not trying to predict this. But understanding there was the possibility that's there, understanding that even if it happened, it might not succeed, was not as widespread.

RFE/RL: What had principally changed in Russia that led them to be defeated?

Matlock: I don't think you can select a single one, but mainly, I think, Gorbachev's opening up created the feeling that the system had to change, that it had not produced what it was supposed to, and that they people who wanted to put the clamps down wanted to turn back to the past. And that had to be resisted.

RFE/RL: Today, 15 years after this event, how would you assess the coup?

Matlock: I think that without that attempted coup d'etat, the Soviet Union in some form would have lasted much longer. So, if people, think that tragedy was caused in their lives by the breakup of the Soviet Union, then the coup brought it about. It was not going to preserve it. I think that's one thing.

Second, I would say it was not the breakup of the Soviet Union that has caused so much the distress that people have felt. It was the inability of the system to change from one system, which was getting nowhere, to a different one. And this is a very difficult process, one without clear historical precedent. But I'm sure that there would have been some sort of union -- not of all 15 republics. One of the things that had to be understood was that they really had to let the three Baltic countries regain their independence because trying to hold them was putting a stress on the whole system. Second, there were certain other things that needed to be done. Gradually, Gorbachev was beginning to do them, although I think he no longer had the full support of the power structures, he couldn't control them anymore. And it was these structures that turned against him, thinking that they could bring back the past, when the possibility of doing so had passed.

RFE/RL: Do you believe that history might have turned out somewhat differently had they succeeded? The Soviet Union could have survived.

Matlock: Not if the coup had succeeded, no. If it had succeeded, they would have broken away much faster. Good gracious, if that coup had held a few more days, they would have had a civil war. It would have looked like Yugoslavia. Is that what people wanted? No, I'm not saying that. I'm saying if there had not been the coup, the Soviet Union could have been preserved for longer -- I didn't say forever or even for very long -- longer in some form. But that's only if they had not attempted the coup.

RFE/RL: Today we may basically say that it was for the better that the coup happened, that it was defeated, and that Russia is moving somewhere.

Matlock: It is certainly for the better that it was defeated. I think the whole area would be better off today, possibly -- one can never be certain of these things -- if the coup had never occurred. If the coup attempt had never occurred and if the democratization process, which was going forward, had been allowed to proceed. Then one would have had, I think, a less disruptive democratization than occurred. In many ways, the Soviet Union, in the middle of 1991, with all the problems it was having, was freer than most of the successor states are today. That's the fact of the matter.

RFE/RL: What is your feeling about Russia's direction today?

Matlock: I think that economically there have been a number of encouraging changes. I think that the stability and confidence that has returned is a positive thing. I think there are negative signs from the standpoint of Russia's future. But I would say these are matters for Russians to decide and not matters for outsiders to try to teach lessons, because I think every country has to find its own way in its own way.

PRAGUE, August 19, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- On October 5, Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov will turn 30, the minimum age for candidates for the post of pro-Moscow republic head.

Many observers both in Russia and abroad have long considered it a given that Kadyrov will be named to succeed incumbent republic head Alu Alkhanov before the end of this year, even though Kadyrov has denied harboring any such ambitions.

A recent visit to Chechnya by a large Russian government delegation, whose members were cited in the Russian press as unanimously lauding Kadyrov's role in expediting reconstruction of the republic's war-shattered infrastructure, has also been widely interpreted as reflecting Moscow's backing for Kadyrov.

Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, however, who has years of first-hand experience of developments in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus, suggested in a recent interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service and a subsequent article published in "Novaya gazeta" on August 14 that the Russian leadership has finally lost patience with Kadyrov, and that the government ministers who traveled to Grozny in July ordered him unambiguously to toe the line.

Politkovskaya further claimed that several Chechen law enforcement bodies have "mutinied" against Kadyrov and refused either to continue making the requisite payment of a percentage of their monthly salary into the Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov Fund, named after Ramzan's slain father, or to renew their oath of loyalty to Ramzan.

Kadyrov said in an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on August 14 that he does not consider himself mature enough to assume the role of republic head, and he claimed -- not entirely convincingly -- that he dreams of quitting politics altogether.

Aleksei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center was quoted by "Novye izvestia" on August 15 as suggesting that Moscow may shunt Kadyrov sideways into some kind of honorific post such as Russia's permanent representative to the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Meanwhile, Alkhanov has launched what appears to be either a last-ditch attempt to preclude, or at least delay, his dismissal, or alternatively, a move coordinated with Moscow to discredit Kadyrov and provide grounds for removing him. On August 11, Alkhanov issued a decree establishing an advisory body that will focus on human rights issues, law and order, and the interaction between Chechen government bodies and federal agencies in the sphere of economic and social security. Those are all areas in which Kadyrov and his subordinates are widely charged with have ridden roughshod over legal norms.

Alkhanov's August 11 decree transforms the republic's Security Council into a Council for Economic and Social Security. His stated rationale for doing so, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on August 14, was the law enforcement organs' failure to reduce the scale of endemic corruption by arresting offenders and bringing them to trial.

Alkhanov simultaneously appointed as secretary of the new council his former chief adviser German Vok, who headed his election campaign in Grozny in 2004. Kadyrov was quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on August 14 as saying neither he, other government officials, nor the Chechen parliament were informed in advance of the impending reorganization of the Security Council. But Alkhanov could not have undertaken that reorganization without the prior approval of the Kremlin.

The first session of the new council took place on August 15 and focused on the situation in those districts of southern Chechnya that border Georgia, according to Local pro-Moscow administrators have accused Russian military units deployed there of violations ranging from restricting the access of local residents to their homes to illicit logging. Vok rejected attempts by Vladimir Ponomaryov, deputy commander of the Federal Border Service Administration, to deny or downplay the seriousness of those violations, reported on August 16.

Vok further announced the creation of a commission that will address the "misunderstandings" between the Chechen civilian population and the Russian military. The primary cause of such "misunderstandings" over the past seven years has been the indiscriminate recourse by the latter to violence against the former.

But some observers claim that since the death of Kadyrov's father in a terrorist bombing in May 2004, police formations subordinate to the younger Kadyrov have superceded the Russian military as the primary perpetrators of seemingly arbitrary killings and abductions of civilians. Thus if Alkhanov were to announce that effective measures have been enacted to prevent such abuses by the Russian military, the blame for any future crimes of that nature would devolve onto the Chechen government law enforcement agencies for which Kadyrov as prime minister is ultimately responsible.

Just days after the creation of Alkhanov's new council, Kadyrov's office issued orders to the Interior Ministry to investigate reports that local bureaucrats are extorting money from residents of Argun and Gudermes (Kadyrov's home town) to finance reconstruction work there, reported on August 15.

It was not clear whether those payments were in addition to the statutory requirement that all Chechens employed in the public sector pay a percentage of their monthly salary into the Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov Fund, which finances reconstruction projects, among other things. Kadyrov warned that any bureaucrat found guilty of extorting money will be punished. (Liz Fuller)