Russia marks 20 years since 1991 coup

19th August 2011, Comments 0 comments

Russia on Friday marked in muted fashion two decades since Soviet hardliners staged a coup that precipitated the demise of the USSR, with no immediate reaction from the country's two leaders.

A group of conservative top Communist Party officials early on August 19, 1991 sought to seize power from Mikhail Gorbachev, who had tried saving the struggling Soviet empire through his perestroika reforms.

But the coup leaders were defeated by August 22 after crowds rallied around the 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 demise of the Soviet Union, leading to Yeltsin's emergence as the first democratically elected president of a new Russian federation.

It was unclear whether the ruling tandem of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would comment on the anniversary, with the former on holiday by the Black Sea and Putin meeting with activists with disabilities.

A Kremlin spokeswoman, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP 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 of history and said that history will be the judge of Yeltsin's ultimate role in Russia's development.

In an ironic twist, Putin's office is located in the White House, which 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, A Just Russia opposition party leader Sergei Mironov visited the graves of the three people who died during the coup bid.

Activists were also scheduled to hold a reunion outside the White House on Friday evening.

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.

Television treated the public to nostalgic flashbacks, with trendy Internet channel Dozhd replaying the Soviet schedule, and Kultura channel airing the ballet "Swan Lake", which famously replaced news broadcasts after the coup broke out.

© 2011 AFP

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