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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.