Gorbachev Struggles to Preserve Union

Soviet Leader Seeks Talks On Treaty Spurning Central Authorities

By Laurie Hays and Elisabeth Rubinfien, Staff Reporters
The Wall Street Journal

December 10, 1991

Moscow -- Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev fought back in an effort to preserve the Soviet Union -- and thereby his authority.

As he has on several occasions over recent months, Mr. Gorbachev appeared to be stubbornly stalling in an effort to avoid the inevitable.

Amid widespread speculation in Moscow that he would have no alternative except to resign, Mr. Gorbachev refused to acknowledge that his central government had been treated as irrelevant by the weekend agreement of Russia, the Ukraine and Byelorussia to form a loose commonwealth.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the leaders of the other two republics froze Mr. Gorbachev out of their weekend talks, in which they agreed to cooperate on the most difficult and dangerous issues, including joint armies, joint control of nuclear weapons and even a common currency. Their treaty is open for the other republics to join and Russian officials yesterday were optimistic that many republics would agree to do so.

But if many of the nine other republics don't join, there is the possibility of riots in the streets, anarchy and civil war -- a vision conjured up by Mr. Gorbachev and others who advocate retaining a central union government.

"A Shakespearean drama is unfolding before our very eyes," said Father Gleb Yakunin, a member of the Russian parliament who helped man the barricades around the parliament building during the failed August coup attempt. "Gorbachev was like King Lear {Sunday}. He even banged his fist on the table and that doesn't happen with him too often. There were tragic notes in his voice."

The government daily Izvestia echoed that sentiment last night: "Gorbachev's tragedy is a tragedy of a great person overtaken by his time."

The reasons for Mr. Gorbachev's grief are clear -- his domain is disappearing from under his feet.

Last night, he issued a statement calling for referendums in the individual republics to consider the Minsk treaty and a special session of the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies, which many believe has been extinct since the coup. "The fate of a multinational state can't be defined by the will of just the leaders of three republics," Mr. Gorbachev said. "This question can be solved only constitutionally with the participation of all sovereign states and by the will of its people."

Mr. Gorbachev has spent the months since the defeat of the August coup attempt desperately trying to piece the union back together. Looking ever more tired and exasperated with each passing week, he has relentlessly insisted that the central government over which he presides must be preserved because the alternative could be bloodshed.

Yet he now has trouble keeping pace with events. The weekend agreement appears to have taken him by surprise. His close colleague, Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, said at a news conference that he and Mr. Gorbachev were surprised by the treaty: "Gorbachev, like me, didn't know they would sign such a document."

What's more, the weekend agreement shows Mr. Yeltsin's willingness to betray Mr. Gorbachev. For some time, Mr. Yeltsin had supported Mr. Gorbachev's commitment to a union treaty, but he has recognized that the growing resistance to Mr. Gorbachev couldn't be overcome and so he gave in to the powerful Ukraine republic's refusal to deal with the Soviet President.

"The Ukraine was quite clear. It would not negotiate with Gorbachev," Yegor Gaidar, Mr. Yeltsin's economics and finance minister, said in an interview.

Mr. Yeltsin's spokesman, Pavel Voschanov, says Mr. Gorbachev's union treaty plan was doomed to fail because he couldn't overcome the independence of the republics that had developed since August. The republics had formed their own political systems, with different notions of human rights and economics. "It turned out to be very difficult to overcome these differences," says Mr. Voschanov. "Gorbachev counted on his personal prestige and charm to make him the core around which the republics would unite, casting away their arguments. Nothing came of it."

In choosing Minsk as the new capital of their commonwealth, the republics are planning a fresh start, completely independent of the old central government. "It had to be some place different than Moscow," said Mr. Gaidar, who was present at the talks. "As long as it was based in Moscow, the republics would think of the old system."

Indeed, Mr. Yeltsin and his advisers are keen to convince the world that they have created an important new system. The three republics together account for the majority of the nation's industrial and agricultural wealth. They also control almost all the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons, except for those located in Kazakhstan. The agreement states that the weapons will remain under joint control and Mr. Nazarbayev agrees. "No distribution or division of nuclear arms, or loss of control of nuclear weapons, will take place," said Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk added that a new system for launching nuclear attacks had been established. Now there will be three nuclear buttons, each controlled by a member of the commonwealth. They must be pushed simultaneously in order to launch the rockets, he said.

The three republics also will proceed together on economic reforms. The Ukraine has abandoned its intention to quickly introduce a separate currency, according to Mr. Gaidar. The plan, he said, is for each republic to have its own central bank and do business with Russia as any Western country would do with each other. "It's a major thing that has happened," Mr. Gaidar said. "We agreed to use the ruble for a long period of time."

Mr. Yeltsin agreed to put off his price liberalization program, which was scheduled to begin Dec. 16, Mr. Gaidar said. He said the postponement is intended to give Byelorussia and the Ukraine time to get ready for similar programs. The program will start in all the republics on Jan. 2, he said. In return, Byelorussia and the Ukraine have promised to keep food supplies coming to the Moscow region and to take additional measures to improve these supplies in order to help Moscow overcome its current food crisis.

But even as the three republics congratulated themselves on their plan, there was plenty of confusion. A Soviet Constitutional Compliance Committee, which according to the agreement doesn't exist, planned to evaluate the legality of the treaty denying its existence, according to Tass. Neither the Soviet government nor the Russian government met to discuss the treaty, reflecting the general state of paralysis gripping the country.

Some ominous clouds also began to gather. Conservative politicians warned that there would be a heavy price to be paid for the attempted break-up. "If we want to save our people -- meaning each citizen of the former U.S.S.R. -- then we'll have to be prepared to take the harshest means possible," said Sergei Baburin, People's Deputy and leader of the Supreme Soviet's conservative faction. "A junta of presidents has grabbed power and they've thrown out basic laws. The completion of this agreement between the three heads of these republics will push other republics away. I think we'll have at least two centers, one in Alma-Ata {Kazakhstan} and one in Minsk."

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