Mini Teaser: America is at war, and its citizens are understandably fixated upon events in the Persian Gulf.

by Author(s): John B. Dunlop

Boris Pugo, the new head of the MVD, insistently disclaimed any knowledge of the actions of the Black Berets--elite MVD forces--who were systematically terrorizing Latvia, and whose maraudings later spread into Lithuania and Estonia.  Another example of what Western journalists quickly dubbed the return of the Big Lie was the claim by Gorbachev, Pugo, and Yazov that the massacre in Lithuania on January 13 had resulted from a personal decision taken by the military commander of the Lithuanian garrison.  This assertion was manifestly untrue.  In fact, the assault was apparently conducted by the Vitebsk and Pskov airborne divisions of the KGB Border Troops, and the responsibility for the bloodshed lay therefore with the KGB and not the army.  Significantly, in the language of the condemnation of Soviet repressive actions in the Baltic which Boris Yeltsin attempted to have passed by the Russian Supreme Soviet (he narrowly failed in the effort), KGB leader Kryuchkov and MVD head Pugo, and not the military leadership, were singled out for censure.

Gorbachev and his generals appear to have been surprised by the vigorous Western response to the attempted suppression of the Baltic states.  The European Community decided to delay consideration of $1 billion in food aid and indicated that it might also reconsider a $540 million technical assistance program.  The U.S. Congress sent a clear signal that it, too, would be receptive to a cut-off of all aid to the Soviet Union if the repression continued.  Canada took action and suspended a $150 million line of credit to the USSR.

Gorbachev and his men may have miscalculated in believing that the West's preoccupation with the Persian Gulf conflict would provide the USSR with a useful cover, as the Suez crisis of 1956 helped partially to shield the regime from Western recriminations at the time of the invasion of Hungary.  If this was the regime's calculation, it turned out to be wrong.  Probably out of fear of losing Western credits and technical assistance, the regime quickly called off its assault on the Baltic and the defiant Lithuanian and Latvian parliaments were not stormed.  The Lithuanian and Latvian "National Salvation Committees" returned to the swamp bogs whence they had emerged.

Since the subterfuge of employing Stalin-era front organizations appeared to have failed, and indeed to have been held up to ridicule both in the West and the Soviet republics, the regime may have decided to dispense with them in the future and to impose "presidential rule" directly, without the fig leaf of appeals from so-called national salvation committees.  There are indications that such a course may already be underway: On January 25, it was announced that, beginning on the first of February, Soviet army troops would be joining the regular police in patrolling all major cities in the USSR, allegedly to combat crime.  The following day, January 26, a decree was issued which extended to the KGB and the police the draconian right to search any apartment or building in the country (except foreign embassies) at any time, without a warrant and without the owner's permission.  These decrees may be seen as tantamount to the beginning stages of "presidential rule."

What will be the future course of the crackdown?  Prognostication is always risky, especially in the case of a seething multi-ethnic entity such as the Soviet Union.  Given the enormous size of the USSR--one-sixth the land surface of the globe--it seems probable that a crackdown will be a protracted process, conducted in stages and with occasional pauses, such as the one that ensued after the bloodshed in Lithuania and Latvia.  The regime may decide first to pacify the core Russian Republic and only then move on to the periphery.  MVD chief Pugo has announced the removal of the police chief of Moscow, who was appointed by the democratically elected Moscow City Council.  This may represent a first step toward dissolving the legitimate, elected bodies of the Russian Republic.

On the other hand, the regime may decide that it is necessary to take on the most threatening situation first and order the pacification of heavily armed and defiant Georgia, where even the local KGB has apparently sided with the republic against the center.  Crushing Georgia's independence, probably at the cost thousands of lives, would provide a stern warning to the remaining republics.  There were indications that an assault on Georgia was being planned for the winter of 1990-91.

It is particularly difficult to predict the regime's future stance vis-[gra]a-vis the Baltic states.  It is possible that they may be cut loose, as a bone thrown to the West and to its perceived obsession with these small republics.  Conversely, the Baltic states might be suppressed, though perhaps at the end, rather than at the beginning, of the crackdown process.

Along with a rolling coup, there will almost certainly be a harsh reversal of the liberalization associated with glasnost.  Soviet central television has already been largely pacified by the new head of Gosteleradio, Leonid Kravchenko, and the immensely popular television program Vzglyad (Viewpoint) has been suppressed for attempting to air a segment on Shevardnadze's resignation.  The independent news agency, Interfax, has been expelled from its offices.  A vigorous attempt is currently being made to remove a leading democrat, Igor Golembiovsky, from the post of first deputy editor of the major newspaper Izvestia; the paper's chief editor is loyal to the regime.

If present trends continue, 1991 will probably witness a purge of the remaining democratic press, such as the daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda and its weekly supplement, Sobesednik, the feisty Moscow News, and the weekly Novoe Vremya.  Yeltsin's new radio station, Radio Russia, may well be forced off the air, and his plans to launch an RSFSR television station, scuttled.  There will likely be a return to Brezhnev-era "unanimity."

The Burnt-Out Star

USSR legislator Vitali Goldanski recently commented to David Remnick of the Washington Post: "We are watching the end of the Gorbachev thaw, and it is even more dramatic and terrible than the end of the reforms under Khrushchev."  Goldanski's assessment strikes me as accurate.  If the present rolling coup does succeed, it will almost certainly exceed the coercive results of the pacification campaign conducted by Brezhnev and his colleagues in the years 1965-66.  Pro-democracy sentiment has gotten out of Gorbachev's control under perestroika, and republican legislatures, many of them enjoying strong support from their electorate, have been provided with popular legitimacy.  To roll back such developments will require the brutal will of a totalitarian regime.  It should not therefore come as a major surprise if in the comparatively near future we witness the arrest and trial of outspoken democrats like Boris Yeltsin, Gavriil Popov, and Sergei Stankevich, and the execution of former KGB Major General Oleg Kalugin.  The Gulag Archipelago could soon be back in business.

The crackdown, carried through with ruthlessness, cunning, and determination, could well succeed; and if it did, the consequences would be long lasting.  Former Gorbachev adviser Nikolai Petrakov has warned that if power is successfully appropriated by the opponents of reform, the result will not be a temporary retreat but a "rout" lasting "not one year, and not five years."(2)  Indeed, ten years of harsh dictatorship represent a feasible scenario.  During such a period of intense repression, one likely aim of the regime would be the abolition of the fifteen Soviet republics and their replacement by forty to sixty meta-ethnic, American-style states.  Such a program of ethnocide has been favored by important Gorbachevites for some time; I recall its being discussed by influential Soviet visitors to the Hoover Institution several years ago.(3)

There is, however, another scenario which has been recently discussed by Western analysts: the possibility that the army and the security forces will split, and that something like the "Romanian variant," which led to Ceausescu's removal and execution, could occur.  This convulsive process, which might entail army regiments battling the security forces or even the security forces fighting among themselves, should certainly not be discounted.  Sixty-four KGB officers from Sverdlovsk recently wrote Yeltsin a letter expressing their support for him and for democratization.  On January 18, Yeltsin reported that a group of ten Soviet generals had approached him and stressed the need for the creation of a separate Russian army.  Even parliamentarians from such relatively conservative areas as Byelorussia and Central Asia have expressed support for the Lithuanians in their struggle against the "center"; the issue of republican rights is seen as being at stake.

At the time of his dramatic resignation on December 20, Foreign Minister Shevardnadze prophesied that "the dictatorship will not succeed" and that "the future belongs to democracy and freedom."  Nobel prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz concurred when he affirmed after the bloodshed in Lithuania that "naked force, after ideology disintegrates, is doomed to failure."  Lithuania, he wrote, had been hit by "the thrashing tail of a wounded totalitarian beast."(4)  It is to be hoped that the predictions of these two perceptive men come true and that the crackdown does indeed fail.  At the same time, the cry of despair of a recent emigre reverberates in one's mind: "There is no hope.  We are going to see a thousand-year socialist Reich."

Essay Types: Essay