It is 20 years since the attempted coup to take control from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev

19/08/2016 14:20
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DUSHANBE, August 19, 2016, Asia-Plus -- It is 20 years since the attempted coup by a group of members of the Soviet Union’s government to take control from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

The coup leaders were hard-line members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) who were opposed to Gorbachev's reform program and the new union treaty that he had negotiated which decentralized much of the central government's power to the republics. They were opposed, mainly in Moscow, by a short but effective campaign of civil resistance.  Although the coup collapsed in only two days and Gorbachev returned to government, the event destabilized the Soviet Union and is widely considered to have contributed to both the demise of the CPSU and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

After the capitulation of the State Committee on the State of Emergency (GKChP), popularly referred to as the “Gang of Eight”, both the Supreme Court of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) and the President of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev described their actions as a coup attempt.

BBC reported on August 18 that the attempted Moscow coup of August 1991 did not come completely out of the blue.

It was obvious the order came from Moscow.  Less clear, though, was how far President Gorbachev was involved, BBC said.

At the time, he was reportedly evasive about his role.  Now he admits that the attack happened behind his back, organized by hardline opponents in his own government. It was a sign that his power was slipping away.

“I never gave them permission to impose martial law or presidential rule. They took the decision,” Mr. Gorbachev says, according to BBC.

“People don't realize that the worst thing for me was that I didn't know.”

BBC says the US government was acutely aware of how incendiary the whole issue of nationalism in the 15 Soviet republics was and how difficult it would be for Mr. Gorbachev to allow the Baltic states to follow Eastern Europe in breaking free.

“He would have been accused of treason,” says the US Ambassador to Moscow, Jack Matlock, looking back.  “If he had agreed to this, the military and the party would have removed him.

“You know, if a coup attempt had occurred earlier than it did, it could well have been successful. At any time in 1990, there could have been a successful coup against him."

Nonetheless, the attempt to re-impose Moscow rule on Lithuania alarmed the Americans.

President George Bush dispatched Ambassador Matlock to the Kremlin to warn Mr. Gorbachev that further violence would affect US-Soviet relations.

“He listened carefully,” Matlock recalls.  “And then he said: 'Jack, please explain to your president, this country is on the brink of civil war. And as president I must do all I can to prevent that. And that means I'm going to have to zig and zag.  My goals are the same.  Please reassure your president and help him understand'.”

Mr. Gorbachev was under pressure from other quarters, too.  For ordinary people, economic upheaval was beginning to make life unbearable.  He also faced the emergence of a powerful pro-reform opponent.

In late June 1991, the Americans got a tip off that Mr. Gorbachev's own security and defense ministers might be planning a coup against him.

Once again, it was Ambassador Matlock who went to warn the Soviet president but Gorbachev reportedly did not take it seriously.  

In mid-August the coup plotters decided to act.  The catalyst, it seems, was a private conversation they overheard between Mr. Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and the president of Kazakhstan.  The men were reportedly conferring on plans for a new Union Treaty to be signed on 20 August, which would overhaul relations between the republics and central government - and they had talked openly about the opponents in government they would need to remove from office.

Meanwhile Russia’s RT news agency reports that almost a third of all respondents in a recent poll said that the events of the failed coup in 1991 that led to rise of Boris Yeltsin and the collapse of the Soviet Union were a tragedy that hurt both the nation and its people.

According to the latest poll conducted by the independent public opinion research center Levada, 30 percent of all Russians over 18 years of age believe that the outcome of the August 1991 coup was a tragic event with perilous results for the country and the people.

When researchers asked Russians what they would do if somehow they witnessed the 1991 coup but possessed the knowledge about recent Russian history and the current situation, 16 percent said they would side with Yeltsin’s supporters and defend democracy, 44 percent ruled out personal participation in anti-coup movement and 41 percent said they did not know the answer to the question.

The share of those who said that they saw the attempt of conservative Communists to seize power as a good thing, partially or completely, was about 16 percent, with 34 percent answering that the coup was a bad thing.  Fifty percent of Russians said it was too difficult for them to give an unambiguous answer to this question.   

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