Friday, June 25, 2010

End of Soviet Union

End of Soviet Union:

The August 1991 coup, designed to halt the weakening of the centralized USSR, ironically hastened the Unions’ dissolution. Declarations of independence by the constituent republics, the abolition of all-Union institutions and the transfer of their assets to the republics, and increasing international acceptance of these developments sapped what little strength there had been in the Union. While Gorbachev tried desperately to find a formula to halt the centrifugal process, his former political allies, reading the signs, abandoned him one after the other. And yet, there was no inevitability about the decision to replace the Soviet Union with a Commonwealth of Independent States. That decision, adopted by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belorussia, seems to have been made hastily if not whimsically.

On August 23, 1991 Boris Eltsin, as President of the RSFSR, decreased the suspension of the Russian Communist Party on the grounds that it had lent its support to the coup attempt and had otherwise violated Soviet and Russian laws. Gorbachev, who upon returning to Moscow after the coup had tried to absolve the party of any blame and announced his intention of continuing his efforts to reform the party, was left with little choice but to resign as General Secretary of the entire (All-Union) party, which he did two days later. Seeking to counter the further erosion of central authority, Gorbachev persuaded a majority in the Congress of People’s Deputies in early September to dissolve that body in favour of a State Council which would consist of republic leaders and Gorbachev and act in a temporary capacity until a new bicameral legislature could be elected. Aside from approving independence for the three Baltic republics, the State Council accomplished nothing and was largely ignored by republic governments. Eltsin, swelled with new powers granted by the Russian parliament, meanwhile accelerated the transfer of central institutions to Russian authority.

December turned out to be the month in which the fatal blows to the Soviet Union were delivered. On December 1, voters in Ukraine overwhelmingly approved a referendum on independence and by a smaller margin elected Leonid Kravchuk, a former Communist party boss turned nationalist, as their first president. A week later, at a hunting lodge in Belovezhskaia Pushcha, not far from the Belorussian capital of Minsk, Eltsin, Kravchuk and the Belorussian leader, Stanislav Shushkevich, signed a declaration terminating the Soviet Union and replacing it with the Commonwealth of Independent States. Gorbachev, who had not been consulted or informed beforehand, publicly responded by declaring his “amazement” and urging republic parliaments to discuss the draft Treaty on the Union of Sovereign States on which he had worked tirelessly over the previous months. On December 21, the presidents of all the other republics with the exception of Georgia (already embroiled in civil war) and the three Baltic states, declared their willingness to enter the Commonwealth. Finally, on December 25, Gorbachev announced his acceptance of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and his resignation as its president.

The August Coup

Faced with growing republic separatism, Gorbachev attempted to restructure the Soviet Union into a less centralized state. On August 20, 1991, the Russian SFSR was scheduled to sign the New Union Treaty, which was to convert the Soviet Union into a federation of independent republics with a common president, foreign policy and military. The new treaty was strongly supported by the Central Asian republics, which needed the economic power and common markets of the Soviet Union to prosper. However, this meant the preservation of the Communist Party control over economy and social life. The more radical reformists were increasingly convinced that a rapid transition to a market economy was required, even if the eventual outcome included the disintegration of the Soviet state. Disintegration of the USSR also accorded with the desire of local authorities, such as Yeltsin’s presidency, to establish full power over their territories and get rid of pervasive Moscow ideological control. In contrast to the reformers’ lukewarm approach to the new treaty, the conservatives and remaining patriots of the USSR, still strong within the CPSU and military establishment, were completely opposed to anything which might contribute to the weakening of the Soviet state.

On August 19, 1991, Gorbachev’s vice president Gennadi Yanayev, prime minister Valentin Pavlov, defense minister Dmitriy Yazov, KGH chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, and other senior officials acted to prevent the signing of the union treaty by forming the “State Committee on the State Emergency”. The “Committee” put Gorbachev (vacationing in Foros, Crimea) under house arrest, reintroduced political censorship, and attempted to stop the perestroika. The coup leaders quickly issued an emergency decree suspending political activity and banning most newspapers. While coup organizers expected some popular support for their actions, the public sympathy in large cities and in republics was largely against them. Russian SFSR President Boris Yeltsin was quick to condemn the coup and grab popular support for himself. Thousands of people in Moscow came out to defend the “White House” (Yeltsin’s office), then the symbolic seat of Russian sovereignty. The organizers tried but ultimately failed to arrest Yeltsin, who rallied mass opposition to the coup. After three days, on August 21, the coup collapsed, the organizers were detained, and Gorbachev returned as president of the Soviet Union. However, Gorbachev’s powers were now fatally compromised as neither union nor Russian power structures heeded his commands.

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