Staunton, August 13 – The standard narrative about the events of August 1991 is that they led to the demise of the USSR, the end of Mikhail Gorbachev’s power, and the rise of Boris Yeltsin. But that is only one aspect of what happened and perhaps not the most important, Russian federalist Vadim Shtepa says.
In a new essay, he argues that while some many dismiss his words as “alternative history,” he is convinced that the coup plotters and Yeltsin “complemented each other perfectly.” The first by failing may have cost Moscow the non-Russian union republics but by acting when they did they preserved the centralist and imperial approach Yeltsin favored.
Those who launched the coup would have had no place in the future that Gorbachev’s new union treaty would have opened the way for, but neither would “’tsar Boris’” who had already become “accustomed to one-man rule, Shtepa continues (svoboda.org/a/dogovornyy-soyuz-vadim-shtepa-s-seansom-aljternativnoy-istorii/31385473.html).
But because the coup happened and failed at one level, it succeeded at another, the editor of the Tallinn-based Region.Expert portal says. “The administration of the Russian president soon moved into the building of the CPSU Central Committee on Staraya ploshchad, and its move looked extremely symbolic.”
After the coup collapsed, “the KGB simply remained where it was although it was renamed. And in the end, the Russian president made a representative of this agency his successor.” Some might even say there was a secret agreement on this point, and the coup didn’t so much fail as succeed.
Clearly, Shtepa argues, “the attempt at the de-imperialization of these spaces was again historically put off. But it would be a mistake to accuse in this only ‘the restorers’ of empire; they simply acted in their own interests. Gorbachev himself bears enormous responsibility for what happened too.
The first and last Soviet president wanted to arrange things so that the new system like the old would be under his personal control. He eventually realized that this was a contradiction no one including himself could solve and that efforts to achieve that end were the result of excessive self-confidence and hubris. But he did not realize this until many years later.
The Russian regionalist draws these conclusions after analyzing what Gorbachev tried to do with the new union treaty, the very document which was jointly prepared by nine republics – six refused and their right to do so was recognized – and whose signing scheduled for August 20 triggered the coup attempt on August 19.
“No one in the world had ever reconstructed an empire into a treaty state,” Shtepa says. But Gorbachev tried. He even agreed to have it signed not by Kremlin appointees but by the presidents and chairman of the supreme soviets elected in the republics themselves, people who long ago had departed from their Soviet pasts.
The draft union treaty didn’t mention socialism and there was no effort to restore the special status of the CPSU. And it gave the entity a new name, the Union of Sovereign States (SSG). It mirrored the EU with which Gorbachev clearly hoped it could eventually unite and was based on popular control and human rights.
Obviously, those who launched the coup against Gorbachev realized there would be no place for them in a world defined by the new union treaty. But few recognized that there would not be a place for Yeltsin either, whose centralist, imperialist and authoritarian attitudes meant that while the coup cost Moscow territory, it managed to keep much of the old system in place.