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  20 years after the putsch: Russia and Lithuania

Viktor Denisenko
2011 10 03

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The August putsch in Moscow turned out as an apotheosis of this collapse.

Twenty years ago Lithuania was fighting for the recovered independence which was not recognized by the soviet authorities. There were efforts to bring Lithuania back to the “international soviet family” by force: in January 1991 armored vehicles and tanks rolled down Vilnius streets, and soviet troops occupied the Press Building, Radio and TV committee building and TV tower. Fourteen peaceful civilians were killed; one of the Alfa group officers was shot by mistake by counterparts.

Twenty years ago Russia also started down the path of freedom. Russia’s Declaration of State Sovereignty was adopted on 12 June 1990 and next year Boris Yeltsin was elected President of Russian Federation. A paradoxical situation: Moscow as the center of Soviet Union opposing Moscow as the center of Russian Federation. The procedure of signature of a new union treaty was anticipated on 20 August 1991. According to the treaty, the Soviet Union should be renamed into the Commonwealth of Independent States. The Baltic States, Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan didn’t plan to join the above treaty.

The decisive reform of the Soviet Union approached, and some hard-line members of the Communist Party decided to take control of the country and retain the soviet empire by force (with the same main role of the Communist Party). The so-called State Committee of the State Emergency (GKChP) included: Oleg Baklanov, the then first deputy of USSR Defense Council; Vladimir Kryuchkov, chairman of KGB; Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov,  Boris Pugo, minister of interior; Vasily Starodubtsev, chairman of the Peasant Union; Alexander Tizyakov, president of the Association of State Enterprises; minister of defense Dmitry Yazov; and Gennady Yanayev, chairman of the Committee and USSR Vice President. Luckily, within two days the putsch was over, and its failure marked the de facto end of the Soviet Union.

Several moments of the January 1991 events in Vilnius and the August putsch in Moscow are interrelated, namely: the tanks in the streets, contraposition of the authoritarian communist nomenclature and young democratic forces, and civilian victims. But today we speak more about the differences. Lithuania does remember the names of the Fighters for Freedom and every year commemorates the tragic events. In Russia hardly could many people recall the name of at least one of the three defenders of the White House who were killed during the putsch. Here are they: on 21 August 1991 I.Krichevski, D.Komari and V.Usov made the supreme sacrifice for Russia’s freedom.

Russia partially ”shot” the seeds of democracy two years after the putsch: in October 1993 Russian President Boris Yeltsin gave the order to open fire to the White House which during the putsch served as the symbol of the Russian democracy. Moscow couldn’t find the historical background for the democratic order: the example of the failed Soviet Union or the Russian empire didn’t fit here. But the “imperial glamour” was still there: the loss of soviet power was very painful, and the desire to “take care” of the former soviet republics didn’t disappear.

The difference between the Russian and Lithuanian roads could be clearly seen ten years after the fatal 1991 events. Ten years ago Lithuania moved towards the set goal, i.e. pursued integration into European political and civil space, and in 2004 has become member of the EU and NATO. Meanwhile Russia ten years ago moved toward authoritarianism, initiated the Second War in Chechnya which enhanced the positions of Vladimir Putin.

According to Russian information space, KGChP actually reached its goals; not in 1991, but historically. 11 years ago the power in Russia was actually given to Vladimir Putin, i.e. to a person whose routes are in KGB. Thus, there is no wonder that he referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union as to “the major geopolitical catastrophe of the 20thcentury”: the putsch has matured in KGB, thus its fall can be evaluated by Putin as an unsuccessful KGB operation or as a professional mistake of this powerful organization which currently operates under a different title.

Straight after the putsch and collapse of the Soviet Union, the democratic world expected a lot from Russia. Theoretically Moscow could become a flagman of democratic changes in the post-soviet space. Simply the new Russian elite had to properly evaluate the soviet history, condemn the crimes of the regime, execute lustration and rest upon a real federalism. But Russia didn’t even try to get rid of its historical ghosts. The very idea of Freedom was not clear or understandable for Russia. Russia never disappeared from the global map, it never lost its statehood and independence, thus, the country couldn’t fully understand the ambition of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia or Georgia to restore and retain freedom and get rid of the Kremlin’s custody.

The countries have come a long way over the past 20 years. Today Lithuania is a member of the club of democratic states and is back on the European and global map. Russia has also gone a long way forward, but sometimes it seems that actually the country is moving around.

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