MOSCOW'S midnight coup was an act by desperate men in desperate times. The axis of Communist Party stalwarts, the military, the secret police, and their allies in the state bureaucracy that seized power on Aug. 18 clearly felt their long-held power slipping from their grasp.At least three factors compelled the coup: The imminent signing of a new union treaty shifting power to the republics was primary, along with the prospect of a splintering of the Communist Party. Behind this was a precipitous economic collapse. Putch leaders and their tanks are moving rapidly to dismantle the opposing structures of power created by six years of reform. One key obstacle stands in their way: the democratically elected government of Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin. In this battle, Mr. Yeltsin must rely on two forces. One is his fellow leaders of the Soviet republics, men such as Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev and the Ukraine's Leonid Kravchuk, and the nationalist movements behind them. The second is the determinations of a mobilized Russian populace to stave off what the gutsy Russian leader Aug. 19 called the "eternal night."
Right-wing offensive This political war, with these battle lines, was already well-formed last year. The right-wing coalition behind the coup is the same alliance that succeeded last fall in pressing Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to move away from his reform course. In early December former Latvian KGB chief Boris Pugo became interior minister and Communist bureaucrat Gennady Yanayev became vice president. Both now sit on Moscow's ruling eight-man State of Emergency Committee. The eight include the KGB chief, Vladimir Kryuchkov, and Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov who engineered the bloody crackdown on Baltic independence movements last January. Also among them are the prime minister and economic czar, Valentin Pavlov, and the communist official running the defense industry complex, Oleg Baklanov. The beleaguered forces for reform were divided and weakened. In late December, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze tried to rally the democrats with his dramatic resignation, warning of impending "dictatorship." By April, the political tide had begun to turn against the grey-faced soldiers of the state. The soot-coated miners of Russia and the Ukraine began the shift with their mass political strike in March. Riding that wave, Yeltsin smashed a Communist attempt to oust him in late March. Mr. Gorbachev sensed the shifting winds and turned with them. On April 23, at the famous nine-plus-one gathering with leaders of nine republics led by Yeltsin, Gorbachev made a historic compromise. A new union treaty would shift enormous power from the Kremlin to the republics, he agreed, and a new constitution and national elections would follow shortly.
Opposition rallies As the union treaty took shape in tough bargaining sessions over the summer, the democratic opposition also rallied. Yeltsin's June 12 election to the newly created Russian presidency was followed by a July announcement of a new Movement for Democratic Reforms headed by Mr. Shevardnadze and eight other prominent liberals. The Communist Party appeared on the verge of a split, isolating hard-line elements. Just before the convening of a key party Central Committee plenum on July 25, Yeltsin delivered a ham mer blow in the form of a ban on Communist Party cells in government offices and enterprises in Russia. Underlying this political struggle was the unraveling Soviet economy. The Pavlov government and its military-industry allies proposed an "anti-crisis" program that relied on using the familiar levers of state control to "stabilize" the economy. But by mid-July, Gorbachev, at the urging of the Western leaders he met in London, appeared more ready to opt instead for radical reforms. Soviet experts on both sides predicted that reforms would be too late to avert deep food shortages and hyperinflation. The democrats feared this could be used to justify a rightist takeover, while their Communist opponents worried about losing their last levers of control over the economy in chaos. The timing for the coup was clearly determined by the Aug. 20 date set for the signing of the union treaty. The movement of armed force and KGB units bears all the earmarks of careful preparation. But the coup events also betray the weakness of the junta, the virtual absence of popular support for its members, and their fear of the backing Yeltsin commands. That may explain the elaborate steps the junta has taken to assert its constitutional legitimacy, including its claim that Gorbachev has been replaced for reasons of health and might return. The coup leaders are also eager to ease Western reaction, if only to concentrate on winning the battle on the home front. They insist that they are not abandoning Gorbachev's domestic reforms or his new foreign policy. In evaluating the coup's strength, the full loyalty of the military's officer corps is also in doubt. The units deployed in Moscow, according to reports, are elite forces. But one knows how the young officers and draftees would respond to an order to fire on fellow Russians or Ukranians.
Nothing to lose The less than commanding position of the new leadership may account for its curious decision not to round up Yeltsin in the first hours of the coup, leaving him to lead a resistance. But it would be premature to predict their defeat. If anything, suggests one Soviet analyst reached by telephone in Moscow, their desperation makes them more aggressive. "They are people who have nothing to lose, the observer says of the putch bosses. "They won't withdraw. They'll go to the end. This makes the situation very dangerous."