So to keep the Soviet Union from breaking apart, Gorbachev had reversed an earlier decision and called on the republics to join in a new pact that would give them greater latitude, replacing the original, and decidedly non-voluntary, union treaty of 1922.
At the center of this plan was a great big problem. If this was to be a truly voluntary association of republics, what about those republics that freely chose not to join in? By June 17 it was clear that only nine of the U.S.S.R.’s 15 republics were planning to stick around.
Gorbachev pushed ahead anyway. He believed this was the only way to save the U.S.S.R., which incidentally would be renamed the Union of Soviet Sovereign Republics. Hardliners in Moscow — and there were plenty of them — were aghast at the idea of dropping the word Socialist from the name of their country.
And there was something else they were getting angry about. Boris Yeltsin had just been confirmed as the winner of Russia’s first presidential election. If most of the important powers were going to be handed over to the republics, this would make Yeltsin — now leader of the biggest and most significant republic — potentially the most prominent leader in the country. Yeltsin the apostate, Yeltsin the renegade, Yeltsin the infidel: He was a former member of the Politburo who had been drummed out of the party and then had the nerve to come back and campaign against his former Communist comrades. And beat them!
Yeltsin was promising far-reaching market-oriented reforms. His opponents were apoplectic.
Hours after signing on to the new treaty, Yeltsin left for a visit to the United States. The administration of President George H.W. Bush was trying to figure out how it could show its continuing support for Gorbachev, whose reforms it saw as the best way forward for the Soviet Union and for stable relations between Moscow and Washington, while not giving Yeltsin the cold shoulder. After all, Yeltsin had won an election — something Gorbachev had never done. Maybe, officials mused, a warm welcome for Yeltsin would put pressure on the conservatives in Moscow to back Gorbachev as their only alternative.