In 1991, General Secretary Gorbachev “desperately sought to preserve the Soviet Union as a federal state,” as it teetered on the brink of collapse (Freeze 463). The Soviet Union’s unraveling had been coming for decades, but it was sped up by a number of factors. First were the structural flaws of the economy, which had become highly dependent on commodities (particularly oil and natural gas, which plummeted in the late 1970s and early 1980s). Second, agriculture, the perpetual “Achilles heel of the Soviet economy,” failed to “meet domestic demand,” forcing the government to spent an inordinate amount on importing grain from abroad (Freeze 4452 & 455). Third, rampant defense spending put even greater strains on an economy that was stagnant and severely hampered by debt. Forth, Gorbachev’s policy of “glasnost (openness and publicity),” characterized by democratizing policies such as legalizing a truly free press and instituting local elections, created even more domestic turbulence (Freeze 459). The people were hurting, and were finally exposed to the terrors of previous regimes. All of this not only hurt Gorbachev’s legitimacy, but also the legitimacy of the entire Soviet system.
All of these factors emboldened “explosive nationalist movements … all across the borderland republics” (Freeze 461). Particularly in the “Baltics, Ukraine, and [the] Caucuses,” various republics began to demand greater autonomy, and, eventually, independence (Freeze 462). So, in 1991, “in a last attempt to save some semblance of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev laboured to win adoption of a ‘New Union Treaty,'” that would turn the U.S.S.R. into a loosely organized confederacy with a “common presidency, foreign policy, and military” (Freeze 463). Gorbachev even got a majority of republics to sign on to the treaty, and “scheduled a formal signing ceremony in Moscow on 20 August 1991” (Freeze 463).
To many conservative elites, the idea of such a treaty was unbearable. Several decided to launch a coup d’état. Organized by a group that included Gorbachev’s own Vice President and KGB Chief, “the coup of August 1991 was timed to prevent the signing of the new Union Treaty which would have fundamentally recast the relationship between the center and the republics in favor of the latter” (Siegelbaum). The group placed Gorbachev under house arrest and declared a national emergency. The coup, however, never gained traction. It ended after only three days; the image of Boris Yeltsin, in the streets of Moscow standing against the coup, became the takeaway from the whole affair. Further, the coup “gave the republics an easy opportunity to declare independence” (Freeze 464). Despite the intentions of the old conservative elite, their coup, if anything, sped up the rate of the U.S.S.R.’s dissolution; Gorbachev’s “New Union Treaty” was a last chance effort to preserve the cohesion of the Soviet system, even if that meant radical change. The treaty’s defeat was the last straw for the Soviet system of governance.