Staunton, August 19 – Twenty-nine years ago today, defenders of the USSR sought to preserve it by overthrowing Mikhail Gorbachev and imposing martial law. But they failed because the people under Boris Yeltsin in Moscow and other leaders elsewhere rose up and refused to obey the illegal actions of the coup people, and the Soviet system collapsed.
That much is widely remembered, but what is sometimes forgotten is that “during those August days, people did not know just what country they would wake up in the next day,” a feeling they suggest that is “approximately the same” to the one the Belarusian people feel now (severreal.org/a/30790363.html).
Soviet citizens in the USSR then like Belarusians now had great hopes for the future, saw that future slipping away, and realized that only they could tip the balance against a retreat into the past, several Russians who lived through the coup attempt in 1991 tell Radio Liberty journalists.
The remarks of two of them, Lev Shlosberg, now the leader of Yabloko in Pskov Oblast, and Valery Potashov, a Karelian journalist, are especially instructive concerning these parallels and both the opportunities and dangers such similarities have for the people of Belarus now and in the future.
Shlosberg says that the coup was “the reaction not simply of the conservative but the obscurantist part of the Soviet bureaucracy to an attempt at the democratic reform of the Soviet Union.” Its members thought that “by physically occupying [Gorbachev’s] place, they could become the powers.”
The coup people didn’t take into consideration that by August 1991, “society was prepared to resist.” As a result, “like Lukashenka today, members of the GKChP were inflexible, conservative people who could not accept the new way of life at all.” As a result, they were doomed.
Today, Shlosberg says, something similar is true in Belarus. The Belarusian people have changed and Lukashenka can’t accept that. But he may behave in a far more draconian manner than the coup people did. Fortunately, the force structures on which the Belarusian dictator has relied are beginning to “shake.”
Potashov says that by 1991, Soviet citizens felt they were at a dead end and that he personally planned to emigrate to Finland. When the coup happened, he recalls, he went to a demonstration in Petrozavodsk “not in support of Boris Yeltsin” as some would have it but more precisely “’against the GKChP and its usurpation of power.”
The coup attempt led to the departure of some in power, but it also opened the way for those just behind them to rise and behave in much the same way, he says. “Very quickly it became clear that in power remained the very same communists who had ruled the country for 80 years.”
“Very quickly the federal center began to tighten the screws and this began under Yeltsin long before Putin.” Like Russians almost 30 years ago, Belarusians now feel they can take charge of their lives and make a fundamental change. But they need to recognize what Russians did not, that real change requires more than just ousting a few people and renaming a few things.
That is hard, slogging work. Russians did not do it, and the result is the Putin dictatorship. Belarusians have a chance for something else, but only a chance because there is the great risk that their aspirations will be hijacked by those who do not want them to be free and in charge of their own lives.