Archive for August, 1991

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

For the past week we have had a vicarious ride on the great Soviet rollercoaster.  We have gone from Gorbachev to the hardline conservatives and back to Gorbachev.  Where do we go next?  It has been a bit frightening and very difficult to understand what has been happening.  The real issue in the USSR was and still is whether or not to keep the country intact as it has been since World War Two.  Does anyone want to “save” the USSR and if so, who?  Can anyone save the USSR, anyway?  The alternative is simply to let the USSR break up into a number of smaller nations.

The USSR today is an unhappy amalgam of dozens of ethnic, national and linguistic groups which have little in common other than the fact that they all have been ruled for centuries by despotic Tsars and Commissars.  They have an unelected “head of state” (Gorbachev) trying to salvage the USSR.  There is nothing idealistic or altruistic about Gorbachev’s policies.  A glance at his personal history shows that he is both extraordinarily pragmatic and a hard-line, activist proponent of Marxism-Leninism.  His primary goals now are to maintain his own position and to keep the USSR together through the perpetuation of the power of the Communist Party.

A coup in the USSR is a dramatic and unprecedented event.  The conservatives who ran it; senior members of the armed forces, the party hierarchy, the KGB and the internal security forces (MVD), wanted to “save” the USSR.  They never wanted any change.  They never wanted glasnost (openness) or perestroika (restructuring).  They were Soviet reactionaries who simply wanted the USSR to continue the way it had for over seventy years under the repressive fist of the Communist Party.

These were the people who benefited and profited from the continued existence of the old structure.  They were the pampered Soviets with special stores, housing, schools, privileges and opportunities.  Why should they have wanted to give it up?  After all, they were the only ones who really profited from the system.  They were also the ones who bankrupted their country through mismanagement.  What sort of job opportunities would they have had in their own country under new management?  The future must have been extremely bleak for them.  Keep in mind that there are still millions of them in the USSR today and that they remain a potential threat to the process of democratization.

Gorbachev also wants to “save” the USSR.  In order to do so, he will need massive infusions of aid and technology from the west, probably more than even exists.  He clearly enjoys his position and would like to perpetuate it.  What will he do when the USSR fragments?  He has never been elected by popular vote to anything and he currently enjoys very poor approval ratings in the USSR.

The coup may turn out to have been a blessing for Gorbachev.  Although it probably won’t have much effect on his popularity at home, it certainly will boost his ratings abroad and his potential to get western assistance.  Having had a glimpse at the potential consequences of conservative governance of the USSR, Gorbachev becomes infinitely more attractive to us in the west.  In the murky world of Soviet intrigue, claims will be made that the whole show was orchestrated by Gorbachev to strenghten his hand abroad.  Even if this is not true, it can’t be denied that he has really benefited from the coup attempt at a time when his political future was becoming increasingly dim.  If the coup hadn’t happened, he would have been forced to invent it.

Does anyone else want to “save” the USSR?  Certainly most of the people who live there do not! Citizens of the Baltic states, Central Asia, the Ukraine, and particularly people from places like Moldavia, Karelia, and Tadzhikistan, who have national, religious and ethnic ties to countries outside the USSR, have no desire to continue under the yoke of central Soviet control.  In fact, as a result of years of Soviet and Tsarist suppression  of their legitimate yearnings, most Soviet citizens have no desire for any kind of association with any kind of central government.

The  Bush administration’s past Soviet policy does not provide much comfort.   The pre-coup policy of strong support for Gorbachev had a number of negative  aspects:  it would very likely have left the status of Soviet military and internal security forces unchanged and it would probably have perpetuated Soviet domination of national minorities.    In addition, it would have permitted the Soviets not to have to face either  rapid democratization,  or political and economic decentralization and liberalization.

One wonders if it was a concensus policy of the National Security Council or if it had much input from other Soviet specialists either inside or outside the administration.  If our Soviet specialists had been involved, President Bush would not have made his recent gaff in the USSR when he addressed an audience in Kiev as “Soviet citizens”.  He did this in the capitol of the Ukraine, where their continued participation in the USSR is very much in doubt, and where nationalist feelings against central Soviet government run high!   He appears either ignorant of or insensitive to current Soviet realities, something that would never have happened if he had been coached by our Soviet experts.

It is more likely that it was the personal, private policy of a president who is convinced that he has a profound understanding of foreign affairs.  If George Bush had been a Democratic president pursuing such a Soviet policy, the Republicans would have crucified him!  It was the kind of policy to which Republicans have always objected.  It was poorly thought out and counterproductive.  It put the United States in a curious moral and practical position.  We found ourselves actively supporting a system that only recently had given its peoples the right to speak freely, which still withheld their basic right to self-determination and which had done almost nothing to change the system that had failed them.  We have been assisting the Soviets in the further subjugation of their citizens!    The current argument that the coup could have been obviated by additional aid begs the issue of the negative results of that aid.

Will the Bush administration continue to support Gorbachev – a man who has never been elected to anything by popular vote?   Maybe we should be supporting someone else, like Yeltsin, or no one at all.

In explaining our Soviet policy, much is made of the need to “keep Gorbachev in power”.  An excellent case can be made that keeping Gorbachev in power, per se, is irrelevant and that his departure would hasten the changes that we hope for in the USSR.  Gorbachev doesn’t want to scrap the system, he wants to save it.  Despite all his talk, other than “openness”, he has implemented very few tangible changes which would be beneficial to us.  Quite the contrary, Gorbachev’s clear enjoyment of his position and power, his past accommodation of the conservatives, his inclination to compromise and his disinclination to act can be seen as impediments to constructive change.   The fact is that there has been a lot of talk and precious little action under Gorbachev.

The USSR is in the process of economic collapse.  Collapse may be an acceptable answer from our point of view.  Given the facts of our own economic situation, we have absolutely no hope of “saving” them ourselves.

Nor should we wish to do so.  The USA has major (but limited) interests in the USSR.  We want to peacefully render the USSR non-threatening to ourselves and the rest of the world and we would like to see the peoples of the USSR exercise their rights of self-determination.

We can accomplish both of these goals by encouraging the peaceful, non-violent break up of the USSR into its component national parts and, if the Soviet people desire it, some type of future confederation.

The US needs to back off.  We don’t need to grant the Soviets Most Favored Nation status.  We don’t need to grant them or to help them get credits.  We really don’t need to help perpetuate the reign of the Communist Party at all.

Once the Party and Gorbachev are gone, it will be time to re-evaluate our position to see what we can do to help.  Until then, we and the Soviet peoples will profit most from benign neglect.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA officer who specialized in Soviet and East European operations from 1956-1980.  He lives in Brookfield.

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