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CASE STUDY II: THE COLLAPSE OF THE SOVIET UNION: Coup against Gorbachev C H A P T E R N I N E 103 I n the early hours of August 19, 1991, while Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was vacationing in the Crimea, a self-appointed State Emergency Committee announced that he had taken ill and that the committee had assumed authority. Both the circumstances—remarkably similar to those associated with the coup that had overthrown Nikita Khrushchev in 1964—and the makeup of the committee indicated clearly to those of us at the embassy that Gorbachev was not ill. He had been removed from office, and the committee intended to put an end to the reforms that he had begun. My three-year assignment as head of the political section was almost at an end. I was due to leave Moscow in about two weeks. The ambassador had already departed; our deputy chief of mission had become chargé d’affaires and was heading the embassy pending arrival of the new ambassador, Robert Strauss. There had been a large turnover in the political section that summer, including most of those responsible for analysis of domestic developments. Many of the replacements had been in Moscow for only a few days. All of the embassy staff, including the newest ones, performed with admirable skill and dedication during the ensuing three days. Embassy reporting during a crisis, particularly a crisis involving a country as important as the Soviet Union, differs in important ways from reporting in more normal times, as one might expect. First, your audience is guaranteed. A round-the-clock task force will be set up in Washington. You will never have more high-level eyes on your work than during a period like this. Second, your competition is fierce. CNN is broadcasting a live feed of what is happening in the streets of Moscow, as are all the other networks that can put together a camera crew. Journalists in Moscow whose work normally 104 ———— THE CRAFT OF POLITICAL ANALYSIS FOR DIPLOMATS appears only in print are now doing double duty as television and radio commentators. The same people impatiently awaiting embassy cables are watching and listening to this live reporting. If you have developed good skills during your earlier work as a diplomatic political analyst, this is not the time to forget them. Everything will move very quickly. You will be inundated with information and requests for information. A lot of the information available to you will be unsubstantiated, will simply be rumors, or will be total nonsense. The audience at home in your capital will be receiving the same information, rumors, and nonsense. If you are not able to make sense of it in a timely and convincing fashion, you may lose the best opportunity you will ever have to affect your country’s foreign policy decisions on something important. Your reporting will be a combination of situation reports (known as “sitreps”), describing what is happening, and analytical efforts, putting what is happening into the relevant context. Style definitely takes a back seat to timeliness in a situation like this. Hopefully, you have honed a sufficiently clear writing style that speed does not translate into unintelligibility. Not that the ambassador and his deputy are going to allow something unintelligible to be transmitted. But they will not appreciate having to act as copy editors, or the delays in reporting that will occur while they copyedit. The embassy had a remarkable vantage point from which to observe the development of resistance to the coup. One corner of the embassy compound was across the street from a corner of the Russian Parliament building, known locally as the “White House,” which became, under Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the center of resistance. Within hours of the coup announcement, people began spontaneously to show up and to construct barricades at the entrances to the White House. As the crowds and the barricades grew, it became clear that the coup leadership faced a level of popular resistance not seen in Moscow since the early days of Communist Party rule. The American president’s initial reaction to this coup was equivocal, perhaps reflecting the fact that it occurred while he, like Gorbachev, was on vacation and had not yet fully consulted with his advisers. His remarks could have been interpreted by the coup leaders as accepting that the coup’s success was inevitable and signaling that the United States would work with whoever headed the Soviet Union...


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MARC Record
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