Foreign policy

By Zubeida Mustafa

August has been an eventful month for the Soviet Union — perhaps no less eventful than October 1917 which brought the Bolsheviks to power. The coup that toppled Mr Mikhail Gorbachev — though temporarily — his return to power, the rise of his arch-rival, Mr Boris Yeltsin, as the champion of the anti-coup forces and the danger of the unravelling of the Soviet federation have come at a breathtaking pace.

Most importantly, the coup and its aftermath have transformed the situation in the USSR.

Seemingly the three eventful days in August were like an interlude when the Soviet Union’s fledgling democracy was put on hold. However, what emerged later was not the status quo ante but a new power structure in the Kremlin which will change the course of international relations in the months to come.

At the time of writing, three contradictions have come to the fore which have profound implications for the USSR’s standing in global politics.


For one thing, it has become clear that the long-held apprehension of a conservative Communist backlash can actually materialise with all its dire consequences for the West. In the present geopolitical context, when one superpower is virtually falling apart, there is no possibility of a return to the posture of military confrontation that was a constant threat of the cold war years. But the prospect of destabilisation and a reversal of the policy of detente is a potential factor in Soviet foreign policy today, which no world statesman worth his salt would disregard.

For another, the victory of the pro-democracy forces which led to the collapse of the coup has strengthened perestroika and glasnost giving an impetus to the pro- Western liberal thrust in the Soviet Union’s external relations.

The third factor is the weakening of the Soviet federation. Given the fissiparious forces and narrow nationalistic sentiments unleashed by the liberalisation of the last few years and the loosening of the Centre’s control, destabilisation caused by the abortive coup has made it difficult for the USSR to survive in its present form. This will, no doubt, affect its superpower status.

All this demonstrates the fragility of the post-cold-war world order.

Given the Soviet hardliners’ strong opposition to Mr Gorbachev’s pro-detente approach, any successful take-over by them could have been expected to reverse the direction of the Kremlin’s foreign policy. The failure of the coup-makers means that the arms cut treaties and the shift to a conciliatory and cooperative stance on Afghanistan, Cambodia and the Middle East will continue.

Yet it is unlikely that after the recent experience the US and its allies would not be inhibited by fears of a resurgence of the cold war of yore. Hence one can expect a greater degree of restraint in their dealings with the USSR than before. The ascendancy of American power which is now undisputed will be used to ensure that the USSR does not emerge again as a challenge to America on the world stage. In the global power balance, the coup has left the USSR even weaker than before.

It was quite plain during the crisis that the West was prepared to use its supremacy to manipulate the course of events in the Soviet Union. With the line between a state’s domestic jurisdiction and international politics already having been blurred in the post-1945 period, President George Bush could unabashedly demand of the coup leaders to restore Mr Gorbachev to power. This would have been unthinkable a few decades ago.

The strong response of all Western powers, especially their announcement suspending economic aid to Moscow, added to the sense of isolation of the putschists already under siege from their own people.

The restoration of aid — more than a billion dollars by the EC and 100 million dollars by Japan — within a few hours of Mr Gorbachev’s return was also a clear demonstration of the West’s capacity to influence the course of events — to use its economic clout ostensibly in support of freedom and democracy in the USSR.

But it is no coincidence that a Soviet Union divorced from its Marxist-Leninist moorings is also proving to be subservient to America’s geo-strategic, political and economic concerns in world affairs. These trends are likely to intensify in the coming months.

The most important determining factor in Soviet foreign policy will be the new power structure that emerges in the country. As the leader and rallying point of the anti-coup forces, Boris Yeltsin is widely being regarded as Gorbachev’s saviour and the power behind the throne.

Claiming greater political legitimacy by virtue of his election to the Russian presidency by popular votes, Yeltsin has started to assert himself in national decision making.

Yeltsin is the man to watch in the coming weeks and months. Even before the coup drama, he was making his presence felt in the area of external relations. The Union Treaty, which precipitated the coup and could now be put on hold for some time, provided the republic greater scope for autonomy. Being the leader of the biggest Soviet republic, Yeltsin has sought to map out an independent path for the Russian federation.

Interpreting the republic’s right to establish diplomatic relations with foreign governments and sign, treaties with them as the right to formulate an indepenedent foreign policy, Mr Yeltsin has not been too mindful of the Centre’s sensitivities.

He has extended recognition to the rebellious Baltic states which have declared their independence — signing treaties with them to formalise this recognition, much to the embarrassment of Mr Gorbachev. This is not the only issue on which Mr Yeltsin’s position is closer to that of Washington than the Kremlin’s official line. On Cuba, too, he has his own views. He favours an immediate cut-off of Soviet economic aid to Havana until free elections are held there.

As if to assert his independent line in foreign relations, Mr Yeltsin refused to join President Gorbachev’s negotiating team at the recent Moscow summit in July. He met President Bush separately in his Kremlin office. The Russian leader has also sought closer ties with the US which he visited soon after his election in July.

During the recent crisis it was Yeltsin who was in command and communicating with the US on Mr Gorbachev’s behalf. His pro-Western leanings will evidently leave their imprints on Soviet foreign policy. Nothing could suit the US better.

The bottom line of the August events in Moscow is that it is the US which has emerged the real winner. The process of dismantling of the cold-war barriers and the integration of the USSR into the international community will be intensified — but on terms dictated by the West.

With potential coup-makers possibly waiting in the wings, the present leadership in Moscow would want to take no chances. It will seek to expedite the democratic and economic reforms to the liking and advantage of the West.

The coup and its aftermath have escalated the process of the USSR’s disintegration. In the context of the global power balance, nothing would delight the US more. Whether it would be in the interest of the Third World is another matter.

Source: Dawn. 30-08-1991