Russia downplays anniversary of 1991 coup
Russia held muted commemorations Friday two decades after Soviet hardliners staged a coup that precipitated the demise of the USSR, with the nation's two leaders making no comment on the anniversary.
A group of conservative top Communist Party officials early on August 19, 1991, sought to seize power from Mikhail Gorbachev, who had attempted to save the struggling Soviet empire through his perestroika reforms.
But the coup leaders were defeated by August 22 after crowds rallied around Moscow's White House parliament building to defend it from tanks and support the pro-democracy movement led by Boris Yeltsin.
The failed coup exposed the weakness of the authorities and hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev never recovered credibility and Yeltsin emerged as the national leader.
Neither President Dmitry Medvedev nor Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had commented on the anniversary by 7:00 pm Friday (1500 GMT) as Medvedev holidayed by the Black Sea, and Putin was shown meeting disabled activists.
A Kremlin spokeswoman, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP earlier in the afternoon that Medvedev did not "so far" have any planned meetings dedicated to the event.
Putin, a former agent of the KGB intelligence agency, has previously called the collapse of the Soviet Union a tragic mistake and said that history would be the judge of Yeltsin's ultimate role in Russia's development.
In an ironic twist, Putin's office is now located in the White House, which in 1991 was surrounded by thousands of defenders -- including the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich -- as the hardliners tried to put a halt to reforms.
With no official commemorations scheduled, events were thin on the ground.
Dozens of former participants, many now gray-haired, turned up to a sparsely attended reunion on the Humpbacked Bridge outside the White House on Friday evening, an AFP correspondent reported.
Earlier in the day, A Just Russia opposition party leader Sergei Mironov visited the graves of the three people who died during the coup attempt.
Twenty years on, Russian commentators took an ambivalent stance towards the anniversary and the idealistic hopes of the time.
"Everything has changed in these 20 years. Except one thing: they are back in power," liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta wrote in a reference to Putin and his KGB past.
"The putsch is still going on," wrote author and former dissident Vladimir Voinovich in Moskovsky Komsomolets. "The civil war is still going on and will do so until truth definitively triumphs over the lies."
"Now, just as in 1991, this is a country of people who are not free.... There are some rebels, both stupid and clever, but there are almost no citizens," said political correspondent on radio station Kommersant FM, Stanislav Kucher.
State television scheduled documentaries reconstructing the events of 1991, while the Kultura channel broadcast the ballet "Swan Lake", which famously replaced news broadcasts after the coup broke out.
© 2011 AFP