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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What 1991 Means for 1996

An intriguing historical debate hit the airwaves last Sunday on the current-affairs program "Itogi."

The theme was the demise of the 500-Day Plan to transform the Soviet economy in 1991. But through the thicket of dates and names of politicians long retired it was not hard to see the flash of swords in a contemporary political debate. The three main players in the story -- Grigory Yavlinsky, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin -- are still major political figures. The debate touches fascinatingly on their motives then and their ambitions now.

The ill-fated 500-Day Plan was plotted long and hard by Yavlinsky. It was the first and only attempt to shift the Soviet Union to the market and a litmus test for Gorbachev's commitment to sweeping reform. It set out a complete overhaul of the economy -- the shutdown or conversion of defense plants, the beginning of privatization, big cuts in the budgets of the army and the KGB. The hardliners, who later launched the abortive coup, were alarmed.

"What could that mean for the lords of the System?" asks the ex-Washington Post correspondent David Remnick in his book, "Lenin's Tomb." "It was very simple. It meant the end."

Both Gorbachev and Yavlinsky, interviewed Sunday on "Itogi," said Gorbachev was in favor of the plan. But there their versions began to diverge.

Yavlinsky set off for the United States to brief the Americans on the plan, which was dependent on substantial Western aid. He said that he went with Gorbachev's official blessing; Gorbachev said it was a more-or-less private visit. Suddenly Vladimir Shcherbakov and Yevgeny Primakov, two heavyweight government officials, turned up in America, saying they had a mandate from Gorbachev to talk to the Americans.

The way Yavlinsky and most contemporary historians tell it, an almighty battle then broke out into the open for the heart and soul of economic policy.

This might be a mere historical footnote if the fallout had not been so momentous. A compromise plan was worked out by a new group. Gorbachev said that it preserved the "principles" of the 500-Day Plan, but relaxed its tight schedule. Yavlinsky said that the tampering made the plan unworkable.

With this compromise plan in hand Gorbachev set off for the meeting of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations in London in July. The G-7, unimpressed, turned him away with virtually no promises of extra aid.

The next month the coup plotters made their move, hastening the end of themselves, Gorbachev and the Union.

Gorbachev said on "Itogi" that he went "with a common mandate" to London. Later events, he suggested, had just swept him away.

Yavlinsky argued, more convincingly, that failure in London had been a self-inflicted humiliation. But he saved his deadliest dart for Boris Yeltsin, who had then just been elected Russian president and warmly endorsed the 500-Day Plan.

When Yavlinsky returned from London he said Yeltsin had turned unexpectedly cautious about the plan and put his weight behind the new compromise version. "In a sense Boris Nikolayevich was ready or, I'd even say, did not object that Gorbachev would go to London with this latest piece of rubbish and return empty-headed," Yavlinsky said.

The suggestion is that Yeltsin deliberately allowed Gorbachev to kill off the radical reform program and be humiliated in London in order to strengthen his own position; that he was sacrificing the reform plan on the altar of his own ambitions. Both Gorbachev and Yavlinsky have their own agenda here. Yavlinsky is, quite successfully, presenting himself as the man who stood for both reform and integration. Throughout 1991 he lobbied for a strong economic union between the Soviet republics. In October of that year, he reminded us, 12 republican heads signed an economic treaty that was overtaken by Yeltsin's pact with Belarus and Ukraine. Gorbachev, he implied, betrayed the idea by vacillating and Yeltsin deliberately sabotaged it.

It will be clear by now, according to Yavlinsky's scenario, why Yeltsin chose Yegor Gaidar as his first reformist prime minister. He was a reformer who severed the economic ties between the old republics and speeded up disintegration.

Now integration of the ex-Soviet economies is back on the agenda. Yeltsin's line has shifted sharply.

And who, within what we hope can still be called the mainstream, are the main candidates for the presidential race in 1996, if it does take place? Boris Yeltsin and Grigory Yavlinsky.

The architect of the 500-Day Plan is seeking his sweet revenge.