Assessing West's Role in Soviet Hard-Liners' Bid

EVEN before the apparent collapse of the Moscow putsch, the question was already being asked: Did the West pave the way for the coup?The charge is being made that by not giving Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev the economic aid he was seeking, most recently at the mid-July summit of Western leaders in London, the West paved the way for his overthrow. Other critics see the aborted coup attempt as proof that the West had overly focused its policies on Mr. Gorbachev, ignoring the shift of political power to figures such as Russia's Boris Yeltsin. Gorbachev, it is argued, was an easy victim of the hard-liners he harbored within his own government, while Mr. Yeltsin has emerged as the sole and most solid obstacle to the coup leaders. The economic aid issue is not new. It came up last fall when Gorbachev was deciding on a new plan for economic reform in the Soviet Union. He had apparently decided in favor of a radical so-called 500 days program, backed by Yeltsin. But under pressure from the conservatives - the same people behind Sunday night's coup - he backed off in October. The Western leaders, meeting at the annual Group of Seven industrial nations summit in July 1990 in Houston, had opted for a cautious approach to helping Moscow. Limited direct aid was offered and a study of the Soviet economy was commissioned. Many observers, both in the Soviet Union and outside, felt the West's failure to state its readiness to supply large amounts of financial credits and other assistance was a key factor behind Gorbachev's October decision to opt for a slower approach. The same choice, though under far more stark political conditions and economic chaos, was on the agenda when the Western leaders met in London. This time Gorbachev came in person to make his appeal for fresh economic aid. The London summit gave Gorbachev little in the way of tangible economic aid, opting instead to offer associate membership in the International Monetary Fund and the IMF's assistance in developing reform policies. The Western leadership found Gorbachev's plans far too vague and indecisive. In effect they gave him political backing and an undefined promise of help when his plans showed more commitment to clear, radical change. While Gorbachev put the best face on the London results, his demeanor betrayed his disappointment at not coming back with more to show. The leaders of the Moscow junta did not conceal their sneering attitude toward his failure, using it to partly justify their actions. "Only irresponsible people can bank on some aid from abroad," the State Committee for the State of Emergency declared. "No handouts can solve our problems; our rescue is in our own hands." Western leaders also seemed to have missed the change which accompanied Gorbachev's political weakening - the shift of power and of the impetus for reform to the leaders of the 15 republics which make up the union. That shift means a growing role for Boris Yeltsin, leader of the Russian republic where half the population lives, and Ukrainian leader Leonid Kravchuk, Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev and others. When it appeared that Gorbachev's days of political manuever had ended, Western leaders had only Yeltsin to talk to on the other end of the telephone line. For Yeltsin, it is probably a case of better late than never.

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