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Russia uneasily remembers USSR coup, 20 years on

Russia on Friday marks two decades since Soviet hardliners precipitated the demise of the USSR with a botched coup, haunted by some regret that the Soviet Union broke up and facing an uncertain future.

Conservative top Soviet officials known as the “gang of eight” sought to seize power on August 19, 1991 from Mikhail Gorbachev, who had sought to save Moscow’s troubled empire with his perestroika reforms.

But the coup was defeated by August 22 amid popular resistance and the indecision of its backers, a flaw immediately betrayed by the shaking hands of its leader Gennady Yanayev at the first news conference.

The coup had the reverse effect of delivering a fatal blow to the Soviet Union, which would formally break up in December that year. Gorbachev never recovered credibility and Russian president Boris Yeltsin emerged as a national leader.

Russian liberals fondly remember the popular resistance against the State Committee for the State of the Emergency (GKChP) as a victory for Russian democracy but a poll this week showed that many see this differently.

Only 10 percent of Russians see the defeat of the coup as a victory for democracy, according to a poll published by the Levada Centre this week.

Meanwhile, 39 percent of Russians believe that the coup was a tragic event that had grave consequences for the country and its people, it said. Ten years before, this number had stood at 25 percent.

Some 27 percent believe that after the coup Russia moved in the right direction but 49 percent think that it went the wrong way afterwards.

Gorbachev, 80, remains a marginal figure in modern-day Russia but he re-emerged this week to make clear he was “unhappy” with the current situation in Russia and believed it was going backwards.

Many Russians share the belief of popular strongman Vladimir Putin that the collapse of the USSR was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

It remains unclear how the anniversary will be marked by Putin and his successor as president Dmitry Medvedev, who appears at least slightly less nostalgic about the USSR than his mentor.

Small rallies of Russian liberals are expected but it is highly unlikely that the crowds will match the numbers who turned out to defend the White House in Moscow — the symbol of resistance — in 1991.

“Those who came out against the coup were ready to pay a high price and had a sense of being in the right,” Alexander Cherkasov, who worked at the time for Memorial rights group where he is now a member of the board, told AFP.

The names of of three Russians who died in the coup have now largely been forgotten, rather than becoming martyrs.

The coup anniversary comes at another crucial turning point in Russia’s modern history, with Putin and Medvedev yet to announce who will stand as the candidate for the establishment in 2012 presidential polls.

Like the Soviet Union before, Russia is facing huge challenges — a shrinking population, chronically low labour productivity, an economy still dependent on hydrocarbon exports and migration from strategic far-flung regions.

“Nowhere have (the ex-Soviet states) succeeded in building a modern society with effective democracies and market economies,” commentator Andrei Ryabov wrote in a comment for online newspaper gazeta.ru.

“As the years went by, referring to these aims has become a strange kind of ritual for the ruling elites of the ex-Soviet states,” he added.