Documents on Democracy

Issue Date Fall 1991
Volume 2
Issue 4
Page Numbers 135-41
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Soviet Union

The failed coup attempt of 19-21 August in the Soviet Union led to a remarkable series of political changes in the days that followed-the shutting down of the Communist Party, the dismantling of the old Soviet Union in favor of a transition to a new Union of Sovereign States, the independence of the Baltic states, and the establishment of a new governmental structure for the transition period. Excerpts from some of the many historic speeches and declarations issued in the course of these events appear below:

Excerpts from the statement by the coup plotters (the “State Committee for the State of Emergency in the USSR”) to the Soviet people, 19 August 1991: Compatriots, citizens of the Soviet Union, we are addressing you at this grave, critical hour for the destinies of our Motherland and our peoples. A mortal danger has come to loom large over our great Motherland. The policy of reforms, launched at Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s initiative and designed as a means to ensure the country’s dynamic development and the democratization of social life, has entered for several reasons a blind alley . . . .

Having taken advantage of the granted liberties and encroaching upon the first sprouts of democracy, there have emerged extremist forces that have embarked on a course toward liquidating the Soviet Union, ruining the state, and seizing power at any cost . . . .

All democratic institutions created by the popular will are losing weight and effectiveness right in front of our eyes. This is a result of purposeful actions by those who, grossly violating the fundamental law of the USSR, are effectively in the process of staging an anticonstitutional coup and striving for unbridled personal dictatorial powers . . . .

We intend to restore law and order straight away, end bloodshed, declare war without mercy on the criminal world, and eradicate shameful phenomena discrediting our society and degrading Soviet citizens . . . . [End Page 135]

Excerpts from Boris Yeltsin’s statement to the citizens of Russia, 19 August 1991: On the night of 18-19 August 1991, the legally elected president of the country was removed from power.

Regardless of the reasons given for his removal, we are dealing with a rightist, reactionary, anticonstitutional coup. Despite all the difficulties and severe trials being experienced by the people, the democratic process in the country is acquiring an increasingly broad sweep and an irreversible character. The peoples of Russia are becoming the masters of their destiny. The uncontrolled powers of the unconstitutional organs, including parties, have been considerably limited . . . .

We are certain that the organs of local power will strictly follow the constitutional laws and decrees of the president of the RSFSR.

We call on the citizens of Russia to give a fitting rebuff to the putschists and to demand a return of the country to normal constitutional development . . . .

Excerpts from Yeltsin’s statement to the soldiers and officers of the Armed Forces, KGB, and MVD of the USSR, 19 August 1991: Soldiers and officers of Russia! I address you in this tragic moment for Russia, for the whole world. Do not let yourselves be caught in a net of false promises and demagogical arguments about a soldier’s duty! Do not become blind weapons of the criminal will of a group of adventurists who have trampled upon the constitution and laws of the USSR . . . .

You can build a throne of bayonets, but you cannot sit on it for long. There cannot and will not be a return to the past. The conspirators’ days are numbered . . . .

Clouds of terror and dictatorship are gathering over Russia, over the whole country. But they cannot turn into eternal night. Law will triumph in our land and our long-suffering people will again find freedom. And this time-once and for all!

Soldiers! I believe that in this tragic hour you will be able to make the right choice. The honor and glory of Russian arms will not be stained by the blood of the people.

Excerpts from Yeltsin’s speech at the funeral of the three young men who died defending the Russian Parliament, 24 August 1991: My dear friends and relatives of Dmitri Komar’, Vladimir Usov, and Ilya Krichevsky! We are parting with your sons, with our heroes, our defenders, our saviors. But we are not parting with their names. They will remain sacred for Russia, for our country. On that Monday, August 19, the hearts of millions of mothers and fathers skipped a beat, for the youth were the first to rush to the defense of democracy, of Russia, of her Parliament. For three days, tens of thousands of people kept their dangerous watch here . . . . I bow my head before the parents of Dmitri, Volodya, and Ilya . . . . Forgive me, that I was not able to defend your [End Page 136] sons and to keep them safe. Today, on this day of national mourning, we understand that we must continue to act as vigorously as possible. The way has been cleared, and they have helped us in this. But it could have been worse, much worse . . . . Rest in peace . . . .

Excerpts from a communiqué on Russian and Ukrainian cooperation, 29 August 1991: As a result of the liquidation of the state coup in the USSR, a new political situation has arisen, opening the possibility of accelerating democratic transformations and realizing the sovereign rights of republics to the fullest extent.

Taking into account the fact of the resignation of the USSR Cabinet of Ministers and the inability of Union state structures to provide for the vital interests of the peoples, recognizing the inalienable fight of Ukraine and the Russian Federation to have state independence, and confirming their adherence to the treaty between the RSFSR and Ukraine on 19 November 1990, the sides agreed to the following:

1. To undertake joint actions with the goal of preventing the uncontrolled disintegration of the Union state, bearing in mind that during the transitional period, in order to support the systems providing vital necessities for the population and the functioning of the economy, it is expedient to create temporary interstate structures with the participation of interested states-subjects of the former USSR, regardless of their current status, on a representative and equal basis.

2. To propose to the states-subjects of the former USSR, regardless of their present status, that they immediately start preparations and signing of an economic agreement between them.

3. To . . . implement a reform of the Armed Forces of the USSR and to create a system of collective security, not to adopt unilateral decisions on military-strategic issues . . . .

6. To emphasize the resolve to continue democratic transformations and to pursue a coordinated policy of radical economic reforms together with other states-subjects of the former Union.

7. To confirm the adherence to commitments by the USSR in international relations . . . .

Excerpts from the resolution approved by the USSR Congress of People’s Deputies, 5 September 1991: The coup d’état committed on 19-21 August 1991 endangered the process of the formation of new union relations between sovereign states. The resulting situation may lead to dire consequences inside the country and in relations with foreign states.

The elimination of the coup and the victory of democratic forces delivered a serious blow to reactionaries and all that held back the process of democratic transformations. Thus a historic chance was created for the acceleration of radical transformations and the renewal of the country. [End Page 137]

In order to prevent the further breakup of power structures, the USSR Congress of People’s Deputies proclaims a transition period for forming a new system of state relations based on the expression of the will of the republics and the interests of the nations.

The Congress has resolved: . . .

2. To accelerate the preparation and signing of the treaty on the Union of Sovereign States, in which each state shall be able to define on its own the form of its participation in the union. The new union must be based on the principles of independence and territorial integrity of states, the observance of the rights of the nations and the individual, and social justice and democracy.

3. To work out and conclude interrepublican agreements (treaties) on economic, monetary-financial, scientific, and technological cooperation; ecological security and defense of the rights and freedoms of citizens; and on the principles of collective security and defense, while preserving a single armed forces and single control of nuclear and other arsenals of the means of mass destruction.

The Interrepublican Economic Committee shall begin immediately to work out and conclude a treaty on the economic union, which would have an open character: participation in it would not be tied to the signing of the union treaty.

4. The USSR president, the USSR Supreme Soviet, and the State Council shall provide the legal succession of power and government and guarantee a peaceful and orderly transition to a democratic civil society.

5. During the transition period, all international agreements and obligations adopted by the USSR shall be strictly observed, including those in the spheres of arms control and reduction, human rights, and foreign economic relations.

To support the aspiration of republics for their recognition as subjects of international law, and for consideration of the question of their membership in the United Nations.

6. All state organs, institutions, organizations, and officials shall ensure the observance of the rights and freedoms of the people that are proclaimed and guaranteed in the USSR Constitution, the Declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms, the laws of the USSR and republics, as well as freedom of the press, freedom of conscience, and the right to establish political parties, trade unions, and public unions . . . .

Excerpt from the resolution of the State Council of the USSR on the status of the Estonian Republic (identical resolutions were also issued regarding Latvia and Lithuania), 6 September 1991: Taking into account the specific historical and political conditions preceding the entry of the Estonian Republic into the USSR, the State Council of the USSR resolves:

1. To recognize the independence of the Estonian Republic . . . . [End Page 138]

Excerpts from a televised discussion with Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin broadcast by ABC News, 6 September 1991: [Question:] Considering the dismal history of Soviet communism, and of communism everywhere where it has been in charge, should any country in the world continue to live under communism?

Yeltsin: I think this experiment that was conducted on our soil was a tragedy for our people, and it was too bad that it happened on our territory. It would have been better if this experiment had been conducted in some small country at least, so as to make it clear that it was a utopian idea, although a beautiful one. I think that this will gradually come to be understood by other countries where supporters of the idea of communism still exist.

Gorbachev: I would sum up my view as follows: The historical experience that we have accumulated has allowed us to say in a decisive fashion that that model has failed which was brought about in our country. And I believe that this is a lesson not only for our people, but for all peoples. But at the same time, the leadership of many European states . . . is in the hands of socialists, and they are successfully resolving a number of questions.

Latin America

On 18-19 July 1991, heads of state from Latin America, Spain, and Portugal gathered in Guadalajara, Mexico, for the First Ibero-American Summit, and agreed on a concluding document that affirmed, “Our community is based on democracy, respect for human rights, and fundamental liberties.” Below are brief excerpts from some of the speeches presented at the Summit’s opening session:

Chilean president Patricio Aylwin: Nowadays, more than at any of the great moments of these five centuries that have elapsed, more than in the era of discoveries or national revolutions, Latin America actively participates in major world developments. The first one is the incredible progress made by the cause of liberty. Democracy is consolidated throughout the world as the system capable of expressing the freedom of each human being. What great satisfaction the heads of state elected by the popular vote of the people feel as we meet here today. Our people are the ones who govern. This community, together with others, has drafted a map for freedom and democracy in the world that is guaranteed by our unity.

Salvadoran president Alfredo Cristiani: There is a common denominator gaining force in our different realities. This common denominator is democracy-democracy not only as a political system, but as a worldwide way of life. This summit could be the celebration of [End Page 139] democracy in the entire Ibero-American world. We believe that the proclamation, conservation, and promotion of democracy has to be the first point on the agenda of this unprecedented encounter.

Paraguayan president Andrés Rodríguez: Fortunately, today we are witnessing the flourishing of democracy on the continent. In democracy our peoples have strengthened their sovereignty, their freedom, and their respect for human rights. Yet democracy has above all permitted the operation of legitimate governments, which can receive stronger support and confidence for their integration efforts, thus improving international relations. Among changes to be introduced, the consolidation of democracy in the region is the first, unpostponable task. Democracy is the political foundation for the transformation of our economies, for the implementation of social and cultural reform, for overcoming our scientific and technological backwardness, and for improving the living standards of our people.

Spanish prime minister Felipe González: Ibero-America has never been as democratic as at present. Together we have learned that it is the best system for the development of the individual and consequently of our peoples. No one believes that democracy on its own solves problems. Without democracy, however, there will be no internal or international solidarity for channeling projects of economic and social development. Democracy is the legitimate and peaceful aspiration of peoples.

Venezuelan president Carlos Andrés Pérez: In this meeting of Ibero-America, of Latin America with its history and destiny, we proclaim the definitive demise of militarism. The culmination of an arduous and bloody process affirms democracy and liberty. A new Latin American era is born, without protective paternalism or complexes of subordination. We are the masters of ourselves. Without resentments or futile squabbles, we seek to converge with the First World . . . . Now begins our total integration in the reality of our great destiny. Integration will no longer be the preferred rhetoric of Latin American speech. We are achieving it.


In the aftermath of the Gulf War, many Iraqis have shown a new readiness to express support for democratic ideas. One sign of this is the appearance of a document called Charter 91, which has already been signed by more than 100 Iraqi expatriates, including prominent writers, artists, and professionals, and has been published in the Arabic daily AI-Quds (London). Excerpts from Charter 91 follow:

. . . [W]e the undersigned, a group of men and women from Iraq comprised of different nationalities, religious denominations, ideological and political convictions, hereby declare: [End Page 140]

  1. People have rights for no other reason than that they exist as individual human beings. These rights can only be secured by the rule of law and due process as set out in a written constitution . . . .
  2. Freedom from fear is the essential prerequisite for realizing the inherent dignity of the human person . . . .
  3. Rebuilding civil society means elevating the principle of toleration into a new public norm soaring above all ideologies. Toleration in matters of politics, religion, and ethnic feeling is the only true alternative to violence and the rule of fear . . . . The only acceptable constraints upon toleration are those imposed by the rule of law as secured by a constitution founded on human rights . . . .Toleration is a value superior to loyalty of blood or common heritage. It is superior to ritual nationalist affirmation. Toleration celebrates the human condition because it places the highest possible premium on human life in all its forms. Toleration is the supreme civic virtue.
  4. Representative parliamentary democracy is the rule in the Republic of Tolerance. Democracy requires coordinating the representation of differences among people on three levels: within civil society; between civil society and the state; and between the executive, legislative, and judicial realms of government. Democracy is not only ruling in the name of the people, nor is it simply majority rule. Central to democracy is the constitutionally guaranteed set of rights which protect the part from the tyranny of the whole. The fundamental idea is that the majority rules only because it is a majority, not because it has a monopoly on the truth . . . .
  5. The notion that strength resides in large standing armies and up-to-date weapons of destruction has proved bankrupt . . . .
  6. Charter 91 is a signature-gathering campaign calling for a written constitution for Iraq that arises out of a collective experience of debate and discussion . . . .

Finally, Charter 91 derives its name symbolically from a terrible year in the history of Iraq. Nineteen ninety-one is the year of a wantonly destructive war which laid waste the infrastructure of the country, giving rise to famine and disease unprecedented in the country’s modern history. Nineteen ninety-one is also the year when large numbers of Iraqis rose up against the evil which had become the norm inside their country and which they held responsible for that war. And it is the year when the uprising was crushed by the brutal razing of cities and massive loss of life. No Iraqi will ever forget 1991.

Charter 91 is a different reason for remembering the year 1991. By its existence, this Charter is proof that the barrier of fear has been broken: Never again will we Iraqis hang our heads in shame and let violence rule in our name. [End Page 141]