Soviet Union’s final hours: Lessons for Nigeria
ENEMIES of Nigeria who oppose calls for the restructuring of the country have been at their baddest loud lately, as if in some form of triumphalism. No reasonable person can understand them because even the most pathetic of retards can see that Nigeria is fast disappearing and the last line left for it is those of us standing between two extremes, clamouring for restructuring. I have said it before and I say it confidently again that once our column disappears, Nigeria becomes a past tense.
It is appositive at this stage to review the last hours of the Soviet Union, in case the opponents of restructuring may still pick one or two lessons and make hay while the sun still shines.
One of the most powerful empires in world history came to a surprisingly peaceful end when the Soviet Union dissolved into 15 independent states which I intend to review how they are now faring, 28 years after.
By December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev had become president without a country. Three of the Soviet Union’s 15 republics had already declared independence and days earlier, leaders of 11 others agreed to leave the USSR to form the Commonwealth of Independent States. Once the republic leaders signed the Soviet Union’s virtual death warrant, all that was left was for Gorbachev to pull the plug for another one to bite the dust.
In a 10-minute televised speech on the night of December 25, a weary Gorbachev addressed a nation that no longer existed. He announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union and his resignation as its eighth and final leader. The Soviet Union died at 69, Nigeria is now 59!
Five years after revolutionary Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian czar and established the progressive socialist state, Russia joined with its neighbours on December 30, 1922 to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics under its first leader, Vladimir Lenin. The communist power transformed Soviet Union rapidly but bureaucratic dictatorship arrested the development and turned it to a Republic of Fear until the 54-year-old Gorbachev came to power in 1985. Hidden behind the iron curtain was a decaying empire with had been torn apart by over-centralisation based on command and control.
Gorbachev believed restructuring was necessary for survival and he brought desperate actions to the desperate situation at a late period. He ushered in political openness (“glasnost”), which brought new freedoms and democratic elections and perestroika (economic restructuring), which loosened government control on the Soviet economy and permitted limited private enterprise. The changes made Gorbachev a hero abroad, but opinions of him fell at home as the USSR struggled through the reforms.
The changes brought by Gorbachev set the stage for a series of mostly bloodless revolutions that swept through the Soviet satellite countries of Eastern Europe in 1989. As the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet leader chose not to use military crackdown. The historic changes earned Gorbachev the Nobel Peace Prize and Time magazine’s “Man of the Decade” honour, but the USSR was no longer at ease.
Increasingly, Gorbachev was being pulled in two different directions by democrats who wanted more freedoms and autonomy for the republics and conservatives who wanted to end the reforms that they believed were breaking the union apart. They were like the ACF (Arewa Consultative Forum) which said it opposed Atiku for promising reforms. The maverick leader of the Russian Republic, Boris Yeltsin, was a particularly radical thorn in Gorbachev’s side. Yeltsin, who had dramatically quit the Communist Party in 1990, called for Gorbachev’s resignation after the Soviet army cracked down on Lithuania and other republics that sought independence.
In March 1991, the USSR held a public referendum to determine whether the union should be preserved or dissolved. More than three-quarters of voters wanted the USSR to endure, but six republics abstained from voting altogether. In spite of the results, the referendum did little to stop the fracturing of the country. Yeltsin and other democrats continued to push Gorbachev to introduce more radical reforms and the Soviet president negotiated a treaty that decentralised power from the central government to the republics.
Communist hard-liners in the government and the military had seen enough. On August 18, 1991, they placed Gorbachev under house arrest at his vacation villa in Crimea. Announcing Gorbachev’s “inability for health reasons” to carry out his presidential duties, the coup leaders declared a state of emergency. While tanks rumbled through Moscow, thousands valiantly poured into the city streets to link hands in human chains and build barricades to protect the Russian Parliament, known as the White House. Outside the parliament, Yeltsin rallied the crowds from the top of a tank and the popular uprising made the coup a failure after three days.
Gorbachev flew back to Moscow on August 22, but it wasn’t he who became the acclaimed hero as a result of the coup, but Yeltsin. The last gasp of the old order had been melted with the failed coup, and an emboldened Yeltsin quickly eclipsed Gorbachev.
On December 8, the Russian president met with the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine at a villa outside of Minsk and signed an agreement to form the Commonwealth of Independent States. “The Soviet Union as a subject of international and geopolitical reality no longer exists,” read the text of the agreement. Less than two weeks later at a meeting in the Kazakh city of Alma-Ata, another eight Soviet republics agreed to join the new entity. With the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia having declared independence months earlier, the USSR was down to one republic — Kazakhstan. The Commonwealth of Independent States also accepted Gorbachev’s resignation — although it had yet to be tendered. “We respect Gorbachev and want him to go gently intro retirement,” said Yeltsin, who had already taken control of the KGB, parliament and even Gorbachev’s presidential office.
Left with no choice, the Soviet president tendered his resignation on December 25. “Due to the situation which has evolved as a result of the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, I hereby discontinue my activities at the post of President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” Gorbachev said in his address. “The policy prevailed of dismembering this country and disuniting the state, which is something I cannot subscribe to.
“We’re now living in a new world. An end has been put to the Cold War and to the arms race, as well as to the mad militarisation of the country, which has crippled our economy, public attitudes and morals,” he said before lamenting that “the old system collapsed before the new one had time to begin working.
Shortly after the end of the speech, Gorbachev signed the nuclear codes over to Yeltsin. Then with little pomp and even less circumstance, the red flag of the Soviet Union was lowered like that of a surrendered army and all the defenders of the old older washed away in a flash of history. The Russian Federation was then hoisted up the flagpole. The end for a country that had seen such violence over its history came without a soundtrack of gunshots but just the swapping of a banner in the breeze and the wail of a drunken man stumbling around Red Square, “screaming Why are you laughing at Lenin?”
Putin in a 2005 speech to Russians lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union thus: “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major disaster of the century. As for the Russsian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside the Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.”
It was avoidable if the RUSSR power elites were not blinded to reality. If only they had embraced reforms at the right time.