Marking Reform's Fragile Victory


A YEAR ago Aug. 19 Communist hard-liners shocked the world by announcing the removal of President Mikhail Gorbachev and sending tanks into the capital.

What has become known here as "the August putsch" was designed to roll back reforms introduced by Mr. Gorbachev - to return the then-Soviet Union to the days of unquestioned rule by a Communist oligarchy.

But the conspirators' plans backfired, as news of the putsch sparked a popular counterattack.

Tens of thousands of people rallied around Russian President Boris Yeltsin at the Russian parliament building, or White House, to oppose the "State of Emergency Committee," as the conspirators were calling themselves.

By the coup's third day - Aug. 21 - popular protest overwhelmed the conspirators.

Although three White House defenders were killed, the tanks eventually were withdrawn from Moscow, the coup plotters were arrested and Gorbachev was restored to power.

Instead of reinstalling Communist supremacy, the coup attempt precipitated the banning of the party.

It also led to the break-up of the Soviet Union into 15 independent states, and Gorbachev's eventual resignation.

Just a year later, Russia has smashed the machinery of the Communist planned economy and has embarked on the rough transition to a free-market system.

For those now in power, there are many reasons to remember the coup attempt's first anniversary.

Accordingly, four days of events - including concerts, memorials, and rallies - are scheduled to commemorate the "victory of the democratic forces."

Yet despite the festive plans, the mood among the population in general - even those who defended the White House - was subdued as the coup anniversary approached.

For many, the euphoria of throwing off Communist domination evaporated as they were battered by the effects of "shock-therapy" reforms.

"There was a euphoria at the time, but that disappeared quickly.... It's not what defines my life now," said Igor Chirikov, who was at the White House barricades a year ago.

Many White House defenders expressed frustration about the past year's developments, saying the hardships caused by economic reform may cause people to give up on a market system. The leadership, they also complain, has not made needed political reforms, such as adopting a new constitution.

Because of the current Russian government's policies, coup opponents could end up losing all the freedoms they tried to defend last year, said Vladimir Dolin, another White House defender.

"Right after the coup, I thought democracy had won a conclusive victory over totalitarianism, but now I'm not so sure," Dolin said.

"The totalitarian threat is once again realistic and it may be worse than the Communists. It may be the fascists."

Though angry at the government for being slow to make political changes, many said that if there was a new coup attempt, they would go man the barricades a second time.

"I didn't go to the White House last year because I liked the political leaders," Dolin said.

"I went because I knew that what would replace them would be worse."

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