What failed Soviet coup tells us about 21st-century populism


The abortive coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev twenty-five years ago this week and its aftermath have echoes today, argues Stephen Sestanovich, a Columbia University professor and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The 1991 populist overthrow of Soviet communism was not so different from the 2014 populist overthrow of the Yanukovych regime in Ukraine. Each was a national uprising against a system seen as corrupt and undemocratic; each offered new leaders a mandate for root-and-branch transformation, he writes for The Washington Post:

Despite some real progress, however, Ukraine’s new government has the same flaw as Yeltsin’s — too little reformist follow-through. If Ukraine’s experiment founders, U.S. policymakers are likely to feel the same retrospective remorse that they feel about post-Soviet Russia. Too often, Western governments have made excuses for backsliding. They have treated “populism” as their enemy, not seeing that — as a force for fundamental change — it can be their friend.

European politics today shows how much has changed since the liberal populism of the late 1980s and early ’90s. Populism is now almost everywhere illiberal — thriving on ethnic hostility and exclusion. East European movements and leaders used to denounce a corrupt elite that they said blocked integration into a broad democratic Western community. Today they say real democracy is impossible unless that integration is reversed. In the view of 21st-century populists, only the elite benefit from integration.

It is hard to recall Yeltsin’s populism — anti-communist, liberal, tolerant, forward-looking — without feeling regret for what might have been. But 25 years after the coup, it is not too late to learn its lessons, argues Sestanovich, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:

  • The first is to recognize the positive mobilizing force of popular frustration. Real conviction and determination generate the kind of support that caution can rarely match. In hard times people trust a Yeltsin rather than a Gorbachev to understand their anger.
  • The second lesson is not easy to act on but just as important. Over-promising and under-performing give life to populism of a far more dangerous type. Once people conclude that liberalism serves only the privileged, that popular grievances are never answered, that the usual reform simply produces new scoundrels, they take their anger elsewhere.



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