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Collapse of the USSR

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Updated: 03.11.2003

Back in 1990, Soviet President Gorbachev's efforts to crack down on dissident Soviet ethnic groups failed miserably. Within weeks of the January 1991 bloodshed in Lithuania, hundreds of thousands of Muscovites defied the ban on public demonstrations, six Soviet republics boycotted a referendum on Gorbachev's new union plan, and Ukrainian coal miners went on strike.

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When Yeltsin was elected president of the Russian republic with 60 percent of the vote on June 12, he clearly emerged as a more legitimate apostle of reform. Western governments observed these challenges to Soviet authority with a mixture of delight and dismay. American conservatives urged the White House to support the republics' struggle for freedom, but George Bush Sr insisted on caution. He had worked closely with Gorbachev to end the Cold War peaceably and feared that his fall from power would mean either the return of Communist hard-liners or the crack-up of the USSR into quarrelling regions.

Moreover, given his lack of experience and reputation as a hard-drinking, impulsive populist, Yeltsin seemed suspect. In what proved to be a final bid to help Gorbachev, Bush flew to Moscow on July 29 to sign the START treaty for reduction of nuclear arsenals, then delivered a speech, later mocked as his "Chicken Kiev" speech, in which he warned the Ukrainian parliament against "suicidal nationalism."

Gorbachev's fate was sealed, however, on August 19 when a so-called Emergency Committee of Soviet hard-liners removed him from office while he was vacationing in the Crimea and imposed martial law (see August Coup). The task of resistance fell to Yeltsin, who branded the coup leaders as traitors, barricaded himself inside the Russian parliament surrounded by his supporters, and dared the military to attack their fellow citizens.

After one brief clash, the soldiers indeed wavered and the coup collapsed within 48 hours. Gorbachev was returned to the office of Soviet president but never regained real power, which had clearly passed to the courageous Yeltsin.

Moreover, the failed coup destroyed the last remnants of fear or loyalty that had held the Soviet empire together. Estonia and Latvia joined Lithuania by declaring independence, and this time the United States immediately extended recognition.

On August 24 Ukraine declared independence, Belarus the next day, and Moldova on the 27th. The Russian parliament, in turn, granted Yeltsin sweeping emergency powers to liberalise the economy and suppress the Communist party. Even then Gorbachev tried to salvage some sort of economic and security union, but he gave up on December 1 when Ukrainian voters approved independence in a referendum.

On the 8th Yeltsin and the newly elected presidents of Ukraine and Belarus declared that the USSR had ceased to exist and replaced it with the loose Commonwealth of Independent States. The US ambassador, Robert Strauss, finally acknowledged that Gorbachev was "in decline" and that henceforth Yeltsin's government "are the people with whom we'll deal." Gorbachev resigned on December 25, the hammer-and-sickle flag was lowered from the Kremlin, and in its place rose the white, blue, and red flag of Russia.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union completed the liquidation of the Cold War by extinguishing Leninism in its homeland. Happily, the chaos feared by the Bush administration did not erupt, but the emergence of 15 independent states from the wreckage posed a plethora of new problems.

All the states were in economic distress as they began to make the transition from centrally planned to market economies. All contained significant national minorities; none had secure, legitimate boundaries; and Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan possessed sizable stocks of nuclear weapons.

Thus, the world might be less scary in the short run, but it did not promise to be more stable.

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