Subject essay: James von Geldern
As the fourth session of the Congress of People’s Deputies convened on December 17, 1990, the ruin of the reform program seemed imminent. Vacillating reformer Mikhail Gorbachev seemed to have thrown his hand in with the forces of reaction. Although conservative forces at the congress were thin and divided, delegates led by Colonel Viktor Alksnis, a black-leather jacket supporter of state order whose Latvian surname belied his Russian nationalism, made aggressive demands for a military coup to restore order in the Soviet state. The immediate cause of crisis was the looming collapse of the Union. The Baltic republics had declared themselves independent in the spring, and were working towards making that a legal reality. Armenia declared independence in August. On November 14 the Georgian parliament elected its first non-communist president in seventy years, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who immediately promised full independence and began the process of desovietization – restoring the old Georgian national flag, and removing words like soviet, communist, revolutionary from the constitution. Most ironic, and most threatening, was the election of Boris Eltsin to the Russian presidency in May, when he had declared the Russian Federal Republic a sovereign state. By September, the Russian parliament was drafting a new constitution based on western models, and including Russian independence and the rejection of socialism. Gorbachev’s response to the crisis in November was to demand and receive from the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union sweeping powers to rule by decree for eighteen months. He dismissed the objections of liberal deputies that the law was unconstitutional as “legal nitpicking.”
Alksnis and his comrades seemed ascendant. Delegates from the Baltic states, Moldova and Georgia were boycotting the Congress as a sign of independence, and the radical deputies of the Inter-Regional Group had been demoralized by Gorbachev’s turn to the right. Proponents of traditional order, most prominently the Soiuz (Union) faction, were able to grant Gorbachev’s emergency powers for revamping the state power structure and deal with food shortages with a mere two hours debate. A Council of the Federation was established with up to fifty-two members, including all Presidents of the fifteen republics and Gorbachev. The Presidential Council, which Gorbachev himself had created to help institute his reforms, was replaced by a Security Council with charge over defense and civil order, to be appointed by Gorbachev. With his new powers, Gorbachev was able to threaten break-away regions and republics with a state of emergency, singling out the Baltic region, Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia. His ultimate intention was to force approval of the new Union Treaty.
This was the background of a stunning speech given on December 21 by Eduard Shevardnadze, Foreign Minister and Gorbachev’s long time right hand man, in which he resigned without warning. He castigated reformers for having dispersed in frustration, leaving the initiative to conservatives. He warned of imminent dictatorship of a sort nobody could foresee, and of the ‘boys with colonels’ shoulder stripes” who thirsted to reimpose order at the point of a bayonet. Panic and dismay were unforgivable at such an important moment. The consequences of his speech were immediate and profound, although not long lasting. Gorbachev, who took his resignation as a political and personal blow, gave up on the possibility of working with reformers. Within a month internal riot police were attacking strategic points in the Baltic states, and paramilitary force became the instrument of choice for preserving the union.