How Kremlin Coups Led to Democratic Revolutions
In the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev was under pressure from the fundamentalist communist leaders of East Germany and Czechoslovakia to take action against the reform-minded leaders of Poland and Hungary. But he was also struggling with radical reformers in the USSR who wanted not just reform communism but establish full democracy — a movement largely led by former physicist and Nobel Prize winner Andrei Sakharov and former mayor of Moscow Boris Yeltsin.
Yeltsin was one of five leaders of several hundred radical reformers in Gorbachev’s new Soviet parliament, the Congress of the People’s Deputies. Known as the Inter Regional Group of Deputies (IRGD), they were interested not just in reform communism for Russia a la Gorbachev, but in full democracy for both the USSR and Central Europe. They had considerable support in the Russian parliament as well as in several Soviet periodicals.
In September 1989, as a rising opposition leader, Yeltsin undertook a week-long tour of the US. He visited the White House — through a back door — and his presentation to President George H.W. Bush’s National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, and head of the Soviet Desk Condoleezza Rice fell on deaf ears. Rice, an admirer of Gorbachev, did not take Yeltsin seriously as a challenger.
Upon Yeltsin’s return to Moscow, Gorbachev unleashed a public campaign against him, citing his presumed alcoholism and supposedly clownish misbehavior during his visit to America.
According to Yeltsin in conversation with this author, Gorbachev was no longer relying on the advice of Alexander Yakovlev, the Soviet Kissinger, who advised him on both domestic and foreign affairs. The real thinker behind perestroika, glasnost, and new thinking, Yakovlev’s views often ran parallel to those of the IRGD reformers. Gorbachev was leaning instead toward the hardliners.
Gorbachev seemed to be more concerned about Yeltsin, who dared to speak out against him in the Russian parliament before TV cameras, than about the challenges he was facing from conservative regimes in Central-Eastern Europe and their allies in Russia. Yeltsin’s image haunted Gorbachev more than the threat of possible payback from strongmen Eric Honecker in East Germany, Milos Jakes in Prague, and Nikolai Ceausescu in Bucharest.
In November 1989, the Russian people were riveted by the televised proceedings of the Congress of the People’s Deputies. For the first time, they actually saw politicians personally attacking each other. The IRGD’s few hundred members had become a powerful force in the parliament and its five leaders the most popular politicians in the country, with Sakharov at number one.
It was not just Gorbachev but also Ronald Reagan whose actions prompted the flowering of the democratic revolution. In the 1980s, the Reagan Doctrine forced the Kremlin into strategic concessions and retreats, the most painful of which was withdrawal from the war in Afghanistan. Russia, then facing a horrendous economic crisis, negotiated with America about withdrawing its forces, advisers, and military programs from hot spots in developing countries.
Russian troops were forced to leave Afghanistan during the period from February 1988 to March 1989. Russia was also behind negotiations of several other regional conflicts that began under Reagan, including Angola and Nicaragua.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan had a great impact on Soviet non-Russian republics in the Baltics and Caucasus that were thirsting for freedom. It was during the withdrawal that the first demands for autonomy — and then independence — came from these republics. The imperial embrace was easing in Poland and Hungary, countries with reform-minded leaders whose deputies had joined the IRGD in the Soviet parliament. Gorbachev was forced to allow pluralistic waves in Poland’s parliament and even a free election within the Hungarian Communist Party.
With Yakovlev protecting glasnost editors from persecution, the fundamentalists in Moscow and communist capitals elsewhere began to ask where the retreat would end. The hardcore young leader in Czechoslovakia, Miroslav Stepan, quoted a Kremlin friend, VP Gennady Yaneav, as saying: “If everything is left to Gorbachev, we’ll have nothing left of the flag but the flagpole.”
Other factors fed into the revolutions of Central Europe besides the Yeltsin-Gorbachev rift and the far-reaching impact of the Reagan Doctrine. An important catalyst was the massacre of Chinese students and demonstrators in Tienanmen Square in Beijing on June 4, 1989. Whereas the fundamentalist leaders in communist countries saw this as a model to follow in defense of their regimes, reform-minded leaders, including Gorbachev, saw bloodshed as something to be avoided at all costs. This became urgent as Gorbachev began seeking a summit in Malta with Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush.
Gorbachev’s advisers, then dealing with Russia’s economic crisis, feared the summit could be called off if another Tienanmen Square-type massacre appeared on the horizon and a new Cold War descended on Europe.
The fundamentalist leaders in Czechoslovakia and East Germany were determined not to allow radical reformers to change their political systems. They secretly designated special units of their armed forces to intervene against crowds of demonstrators as necessary.
To counter them, Gorbachev gave orders to sizable units of Russian forces in East Germany and Czechoslovakia to forgo any support for a coup against the demonstrators. He put Russian security forces on alert in East Germany and helped organize an inter-party coup against the Honecker regime.
As Honecker fell, so did the Berlin Wall, the symbol of Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe. However, the inter-party coup came too late to ensure the outcome Gorbachev wanted — a communist, reform-minded regime. The radical reformers in Germany prevailed, the system eventually became democratic, and Russian hegemony ended.
Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was no spontaneous mass movement in Czechoslovakia. The country was paralyzed. The Czech leadership, like the earlier one in Germany, was planning to use special forces and militia to put down any attempt to change the regime.
Things came to a head in Prague on November 17. In the absence of large crowds demanding perestroika, a KGB general, one of the leaders of the Soviet Ministry of the Interior and a section of the Czech secret service, came up with a creative tactic to mobilize the masses: a killing that never was.
A student named Smid was reported by Radio Free Europe to have been killed by riot police in the center of Prague during the annual international students day. Smid was actually a Lt. Zifcak, a member of the Czech secret police, who was taken to a hospital in a Secret Service vehicle and reported to be dead. He later miraculously recovered.
The incident succeeded in sparking further demonstrations, and the opposition, led by Vaclav Havel, finally organized itself into a civil forum. But the fundamentalist forces didn’t give up. They planned to mobilize special units of the armed forces, and their leaders distributed leaflets against Havel.
But on November 23, when Stepan tried to mobilize workers to assist the police in putting down the demonstrators, they refused to cooperate. They joined the students and other demonstrators in the streets instead. The coup became a national democratic revolution, generating huge crowds. A general strike was called, the conservative leaders resigned, and Vaclav Havel became president. The communist regime in Prague was over.
A pro-Soviet coup was organized by Gorbachev’s KGB in both Prague and Berlin. What Gorbachev and his supporters did not anticipate was that the Czechoslovak and German people, like people elsewhere in Central Europe, had awakened from their lethargy and would transform the planned reform communist revolution from above into a democratic revolution from below.
There were attempts to reverse the reforms. The final act was played on August 20, 1991 in Moscow with an attempted reactionary coup presided over by Kryuchkov and Yanaev. This was the same Yanaev who correctly forecast that nothing would be left of the Soviet flag but the flagpole.
After winning the chairmanship of the empire’s largest Soviet republic, Russia, Yeltsin took it out of the Soviet Union and the rest of it collapsed. The non-Russian republics were free and the flag of the Soviet empire was replaced by the traditional Russian standard.
This was Russia’s second attempt at democracy. The first was during the Kerensky government, which was undone by the Bolshevik coup in 1917. There is hope yet for Russia, but that’s another story.
Dr. Jiri Valenta served as Director of the Institute of Soviet and East European Studies at the University of Miami from 1986 to 1991. This article is based on his forthcoming book, Russia’s Democratic Revolution.
A version of this article was originally published by The BESA Center.