- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 21, 2001

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the failed coup d'etat in what was once the Soviet Union. Observing the muted celebration by the Russian people (the Russian government simply ignored an anniversary that should be a national holiday) of that super-historic event, one is reminded of the Duke of Wellington's dispatch after Waterloo: "Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won."

Ten years after the demise of the most militarily powerful dictatorship the world has ever seen, a truncated Russia with a democratically elected government has so failed its liberated citizenry as to invite invidious comparisons between the Soviet past and the Russian present. Who would have thought as the world watched Boris Yeltsin heroically clamber aboard a Soviet tank and defy the coup plotters that this same man would be remembered a decade later as a drunk, a buffoon who chose as his successor a KGB man, but only after he agreed to immunize Mr. Yeltsin and his family from any future criminal prosecution? And who would have thought that Mr. Yeltsin's antics and eight-year incumbency as president of Russia would be so bizarre as to make Mikhail Gorbachev, his hapless predecessor, look better and better?

To be candid, the world would probably be far better off were Mr. Gorbachev president of Russia instead of Vladimir Putin. It was Mr. Gorbachev who, with his politics of glasnost and perestroika, unwittingly started the Soviet Union on the road to ruin and, subsequently, Russia's democratic rebirth. He was not then a convinced democrat, otherwise he would not have said in 1986: "Stalinism is a concept thought up by the enemies of communism to discredit socialism as a whole." Nor was he a judge of character since the very people he appointed to strategic Politburo posts were the very people who a few months later plotted his ouster. Nor did he really understand that the Soviet empire was no longer viable and that its dissolution was inevitable, something that Mr. Putin, whose armies are still heavily invested in Chechnya, has also failed to see. But Mr. Gorbachev raised no obstacles to Germany's reunification. He knew when retreat was urgent.

What is startling about Russia's present state is that after 10 years no one has really emerged as a leader capable of restoring that civic spirit which a decade ago brought out on the streets of Moscow tens of thousands of Russians ready to defend the process of democratization begun by Mr. Gorbachev. Without that civic spirit and its concomitant, a rule of law, Russia is doomed to flounder about or worse for another decade.


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