March Referendum

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

“Do you consider necessary the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which the rights and freedom of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?” This was the question put to voters in the Soviet Union on March 17, 1991. By this time, voters in the three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania overwhelmingly had declared themselves in favor of independence from the Soviet Union and their respective parliaments had issued decrees to that effect. Many other republics, including the Russian Federation, had declared in 1990 the supremacy of their laws over those of the All-Union government, creating what came to be referred to as the “war of laws.” The March referendum thus represented a calculated risk on the part of Gorbachev that a majority of Soviet citizens would support a reconstituted union of republics based on democratic freedoms.

Over 80 percent of the Soviet adult population (148.5 million people) took part in the referendum, and of them 76.4 percent voted “yes.” Six republics — Armenia, Georgia, Moldavia, and the Baltic republics — did not participate. In Russia, the question of whether the president of the republic should be elected by popular vote was also included on the ballot (and approved by 70 percent of voters). Several other republics also added questions. Even so, in all nine republics the question of retaining the Union was approved by at least 70 percent of voters. The greatest support came from rural areas and the republics of Central Asia, the least from the largest cities — Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev.

Gorbachev therefore received a strong mandate to proceed with a new Union treaty. On April 23, he met at Novo-Ogarevo with the nine leaders of the republics that had participated in the referendum to discuss the revision of an earlier draft. These discussions resulted in a new draft issued in June. But at the same time, the Union continued to disintegrate. In early April, Georgia declared independence thus joining the three secessionist Baltic republics. In May, the Russian government established a foreign ministry and an internal security organization, and the Russian parliament granted Eltsin emergency powers. Eltsin’s election as President of the RSFSR in June was widely interpreted as giving him greater legitimacy than Gorbachev who had been elevated to the presidency of the USSR not by popular vote but by the Congress of People’s Deputies. Whether the new Union treaty scheduled to come into effect on August 20 would have rescued at least a rump Soviet Union from extinction — which seemed to be what the majority of voters in the March referendum wanted — is unlikely. In any event, the attempted coup prevented the signing of the treaty and with it, any chance of the Soviet Union’s survival.

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