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Coup Rumors in Moscow

But this year popular discontent, not a secret cabal, threatens Yeltsin

By Vladimir ShlapentokhVladimir Shlapentokh is a professor in the Community Health Science Department at Michigan State University. / August 19, 1992

PARADOXICALLY, in August 1992 the signs of an impending coup are much more visible than they were exactly one year ago, although this does not mean that a coup is inevitable. This time, unlike August 1991, the major threat to the regime stems not from the nomenklatura but from the mass discontent that conservatives hope to transform into big riots under their guidance.

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After taking control in August 1991, the regime's theorists initiated a program designed to maintain the sympathy of the people through three means - privatization of property, the independence of Russia, and the establishment of a new government based on democratic principles.

By privatizing state property - from residential apartments to large industrial facilities - the regime hoped to create a large middle class that would align itself with the new government as the benefactor and guarantor of their new social status.

President Boris Yeltsin's privatization, however, has antagonized the masses rather than earn their support. Only a tiny minority of the population has noticed any significant benefit. The authorities also failed to enable Russians to own even their state-controlled apartments, not to mention production assets. Consequently, Russians have little faith left in the plan to transform Russia into a nation of property owners. Part of the problem is that Mr. Yeltsin's government lost control over privatization

to old and new bureaucrats (as well as to criminals), who took advantage of their positions as insiders to purchase a significant part of the means of production.

Consequently, the privatization program has left most Russians without modification in their property status, while hyperinflation has drained savings accounts in the past two years. Most Russians are actually worse off financially than they were in the past, and are extremely angry about the wealthy life of the new bourgeoisie.

Yeltsin's attempt to use Russian independence to gain legitimization for his regime failed even more conspicuously than did his privatization program. The new administration established June 12 as "The Day of Independence," but most Russians did not take this idea seriously. Moreover, these polls demonstrate that a growing majority of Russians (63 percent in April and 68 percent in June) feel a strong nostalgia for the Soviet Union. The public has also changed its views regarding the organizers of the co up last August; only a minority (24 percent) still regards them as criminals. Many Russians regard these people as heroes who were attempting to save the Soviet Union.

Even Yeltsin's most ardent adversaries cannot deny that his regime significantly expanded political freedoms and strengthened fledgling democratic institutions in the country after the failed coup. However, recent developments, including the atmosphere of anarchy in the country, the bickering between various branches of local government, the mass corruption of the bureaucracy and its complete impunity, and the huge increase in criminal activity are all associated with democracy in the minds of many citiz ens. As a result, many Russians are yearning for the good old days when the authorities kept order in the country.