Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum
As in the revolutionary year of 1917, so in 1991 April was a month of political crisis. The declaration by the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian parliaments of independence in March was the culmination of three years of nationalist agitation and represented a major threat to the Soviet Union’s territorial integrity. It would not be the last. To be sure, in the March 17 referendum on “the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of sovereign republics,” an overwhelming majority of voters declared their approval, but six republics (the three Baltic republics, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldavia) did not participate, and in April Georgia followed the Baltic republics’ example by declaring itself independent. Also in April, the Warsaw Pact which had bound eastern Europe militarily to the Soviet Union for thirty-five years was formally liquidated, the coal miners’ strike entered its second month, and workers in other industries organized shorter-lived strikes against price increases that had been mandated on April 2 by Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov.
Gorbachev conceivably could have decided to meet these challenges with force as had been the case earlier in the year in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, and in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, in April 1989. Instead, he abandoned his “turn to the right” — that is, his reliance on the conservative forces in his leadership team — in favor of reviving the process of developing a new Union treaty which already had gone through two drafts. Returning from a state visit to Japan, on April 23 he convened a meeting of as many of the political heads of the union republics as were prepared to attend. The leaders of the six republics that had boycotted the March referendum declined the offer, leaving nine republic leaders (including Boris Eltsin representing the Russian Federation) plus Gorbachev. They agreed to work out a new draft to reconfigure the relationship between the Union and its constituent republics. This and subsequent gatherings over the next two months have been referred to as the “Novo-Ogarevo process” after the village not far from Moscow where the leaders met.
The treaty that eventually was published on August 14 and was to be signed on August 20 ceded to the republics ownership of virtually all natural resources including mineral deposits on their territories. It also stipulated that supremacy of republic laws over Union legislation, as symbolized in the replacement of Socialist by Sovereign in the official title of the USSR. Finally, it called for the popular election of the President of the Union, something that Gorbachev had resisted as recently as March 1990. The new Union Treaty never came into effect because on August 18, 1991 die-hard proponents of restoring the old order launched their abortive putsch. The failure of the putschists swung the political initiative towards Eltsin, who reverted to non-cooperation with Gorbachev. Less than four months later, with his Belorussian and Ukrainian counterparts, he moved to replace the Union with a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).