Russia remembers 1991 coup, final phase in USSR demise

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Russia on Friday marks two decades since the failed 1991 coup by Soviet conservatives against perestroika leader Mikhail Gorbachev which ended up hastening the collapse of the USSR four months later.

Lithuania and Georgia had already declared their independence from the Soviet Union in 1990 but the botched putsch against Gorbachev's reforms prompted one republic after another to secede in the next months.

The Soviet Union would then officially dissolve in December, a shock from which Russia and most of the former republics of the USSR have yet to fully recover and many of its citizens still bitterly regret.

The coup leaders "tried to turn the screws but failed to understand that this was no longer possible," said Yury Korgunyuk, political analyst at the Indem Foundation in Moscow.

"What they did accelerated the collapse of the system."

With Russia's modern leadership under ex-KBG agent Vladimir Putin still seeking to show respect for the Soviet era while taking the new Russia into modern times, official commemorations are expected to be modest.

Russian liberal groups are to hold a march on August 22 to mark the "victory" over the coup and remind the authorities of the importance of realising the "goals and tasks of the peaceful Russian democratic movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s."

The first Muscovites knew of the coup was when they woke on the morning of August 19 to find tanks in the street, "Swan Lake" shown on the television rather than the usual programmes and, it seemed, new leaders at the helm.

Gorbachev had sought to ensure the Soviet Union's survival in the modern world through a historic reform programme with the trademark policies of perestroika (rebuilding) and glasnost (openness).

The USSR was clearly in crisis, not only reeling from the independence declarations of Lithuania and Georgia but also battling ethnic rioting in the Caucasus and Central Asia as well as economic strife.

But the reforms were too much for die-hard conservatives and Gorbachev had even tried to satisfy them by abandoning an economic reform plan which exasperated liberals like Boris Yeltsin and Eduard Shevardnadze.

The coup to topple Gorbachev had brewed for months and on August 19, 1991, hardliners sought to take advantage of the Soviet leader's absence on holiday with his family in Crimea.

"I should not have taken that vacation," Gorbachev admitted in an interview with official Rossiyskaya Gazeta daily this week to mark the anniversary. "That was a mistake."

Eight men known as the "gang of eight" led the coup, including vice president Gennady Yanayev, KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, Interior Minister Boris Pugo and Defence Minister Dmitry Yazov.

They declared a six month state of emergency saying Gorbachev was indisposed "for health reasons" and the USSR would be led in that period by their State Committee on the State of Emergency (GKChP).

But they showed a fatal lack of determination and the orders they issued were not put in place.

For many, the outcome was already clear when the hands of Yanayev -- the leader of the coup and Gorbachev's purported successor -- were seen shaking violently in their first news conference.

Yeltsin, who was never arrested, took charge of the resistance, supported by thousands of Muscovites and even military units.

People also mobilised against the coup in Leningrad, led by liberal mayor Anatoly Sobchak, the mentor of present day strongman Vladimir Putin.

By August 21, the coup appeared defeated and on August 22, Gorbachev returned to Moscow.

But his power was on the wane compared to Yeltsin, the leader of the Russian Soviet Republic who had memorably mobilised opposition to the coup by bravely giving a speech in Moscow from the top of a tank.

The eight coup plotters were all arrested, with the exception of Pugo who was killed in an apparent suicide on arrest. They eventually received relatively mild jail terms.

Yanayev, who was pardoned in 1994, died in August 2010 after living out his years in peaceful obscurity at Moscow's International Tourism Academy, where he headed the department of history and international relations.

© 2011 AFP

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