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Attempts to Save the Union

"Gorbachev Factor"

It took Gorbachev more than five years as the leader of the USSR to realize that, in order to save the union, it was necessary to share power with the republics. Even then he could not make up his mind on the cardinal issue of how much sovereignty should be given to the republics to assuage their appetite for greater autonomy and to preserve the union at the same time.  

In the spring of 1991 the governments of nine out of the fifteen union republics agreed to take part in talks with Gorbachev on the redistribution of power between the republics and the center (the other six—Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Moldova, Azerbaijan, and Georgia—refused to join the negotiations). The negotiations with the leaders of the union republics offered Gorbachev a last chance to reform the country’s federal structure and to secure his own position as an influential political player.

The outcome of these protracted and tough negotiations between Gorbachev and the republican leaders was the draft of a new union treaty, which was finally agreed on and made public in June 1991. It envisaged that the country’s name, USSR, would have a fundamentally new meaning—Union of Soviet Sovereign (instead of Socialist) Republics—and that the powers of the republics would be substantially augmented. The Soviet Union would be transformed into a genuine federation in which the republics themselves were to decide how much power to delegate to the federal center.

The signing of the new treaty, scheduled for 20 August 1991, would have meant the end of the unlimited powers of the center. The conservative August coup was an attempt on the part of the all-union authorities to prevent this and to restore the power of the Kremlin. Following the coup’s collapse, the central governing bodies in Moscow were discredited, Gorbachev’s authority rapidly diminished, and the republics were reluctant to return to the negotiating table. The coup sealed the fate of the union, putting an end to Gorbachev’s efforts to rescue it.

It will always remain a mystery whether the new union treaty would have saved the USSR from disintegration. What is clear, however, is that Gorbachev’s authority had considerably eroded even before the fateful August coup because of the permanent failures of his economic reforms. By the end of the 1980s, the Soviet system was facing an economic breakdown more severe and far-reaching than the worst capitalist crisis of the 1930s.

Not surprisingly, the unrest aroused ancient nationalist rivalries and ambitions, threatening the dismemberment of the Soviet economic and political empire. Mounting economic problems pushed the republics toward secession, bringing local elites and populations to the conviction that only by freeing themselves from the failed and unreformable socioeconomic system would they be able to find a way out of the Soviet impasse.

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The USSR's Collapse


Soviet Russia

Understanding the Soviet Period
Russian Political Culture
Soviet Ideology
The Soviet System
Soviet Nationalities
The Economic Structure
The Socialist Experiment
"Great Leap" to Socialism
The USSR in World War II
Stalin's Legacy
Brezhnev's Stagnation
The Economy in Crisis
Political Reform
The USSR's Collapse

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