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Proposed Union Treaty Triggered 1991 Soviet Coup, Expert Says - 2001-08-15

On August 18, 1991, eight high-ranking Soviet officials placed Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest and took control of the government of the USSR. Less than 72 hours later, their coup had collapsed, but it would change the course of history in a way that no one -certainly not the plotters themselves - could have foreseen.

The reports on Echo Moskvy radio that tanks where in the streets of the capital were a shock for the citizens of Moscow. But as dramatic as the news was that an "emergency committee" had taken power, it was not a surprise.

For months it was clear that many in the Soviet leadership were unhappy with Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms, which they believed were causing the Soviet Union to unravel.

During August 1991, Mr. Gorbachev was putting the final touches on a new union treaty that would give even greater independence to the Soviet states. Lithuania had already declared independence and more Soviet States were following suit. That some inside the leadership wanted to turn back the clock was no surprise. "Everyone suspected that something is going to happen," says Yevgeny Volk who worked for the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation an organization he describes as the headquarters of the anti-communist movement at the time. "Moscow Mayor Gavril Papov received information about it and shared it with Boris Yeltsin in late July," Mr. Volk says. "And, he called U.S. Ambassador Matlock. Matlock wired a secret cable to President Bush and President Bush called Gorbachev saying that 'you know there is a coup against you'. And Gorbachev said, 'I do not believe it.'"

Even though he had led a wave of unprecedented changes hailed around the world, by 1991 Mr. Gorbachev's popularity at home had nearly vanished. After five-years of promises, reforms failed to bring any real improvement in living standards.

But it was not Mr. Gorbachev's lack of popularity that triggered the coup. The deciding factor was the coming union treaty with the country's republics that would have taken away much of Soviet government's power by creating a confederation.

If Mr. Gorbachev did not believe a coup was in the offing, many others did, including Sergei Bradchikov, a businessman with no direct involvement in politics, but a strong belief in democracy. "I heard about it from my friends," he says. "They warned me in February that something would happen in August. So I knew it was coming, but I did not expect it to happen the way it did."

Sergei Bradchikov was also not expecting to be out in the street in front of the Russian White House the seat of the Russian Federation's administration - part of a human shield that squared off against Soviet tanks. But that is where he found himself. He did it, he says, in defense of democracy. "I was not defending Boris Yeltsin personally or anybody else," he says. "I was fighting against the regime we had, for some democratic changes and reforms."

As courageous as Mr. Bradchikov and the other defenders were, it was clear from the beginning that the coup leaders lacked resolve. None of their key opponents were ever arrested.

Mikhail Gorbachev's phone lines at his dacha in Crimea had been cut, but Boris Yeltsin was receiving calls from around the world, and even ordered food from Moscow's Pizza Hut. Mr. Yeltsin even phoned the Emergency Committee, as the coup leaders called themselves, denouncing them a "gang of bandits."

Mr. Yeltsin appeared outside the White House where he scrambled aboard a tank in front of 20-thousand protesters and called for mass resistance.

Boris Yeltsin denounced the coup as unconstitutional and called for a general strike, declaring himself the "Guardian of Democracy."

The crowds began to grow. Veterans of the Afghanistan war set up barricades in front of the White House and made Molotov cocktails. The building was surrounded by people from all walks of Russian life, from students and defecting soldiers to priests and pensioners.

By the end of the day on August 19, troops were going over to Mr. Yeltsin's side, and many of the elite commando divisions were now protecting the White House.

Even though the Emergency Committee imposed a curfew on Moscow the next day, no one paid attention to it. Crowds started to raise the old white, blue, and red Russian flag. Famed cellist Mistislav Rostropovich even flew in from Paris for an impromptu concert.

Yeltsin supporter Yevgeny Volk said that from the beginning the Emergency Committee lacked the will to take firm measures to ensure the coup's success. "They were afraid of using force," Volk says. "They understood that their prestige in the international community would be ruined after a military suppression of the democracy and pro-reform forces here. That is why they were always hesitant. They never decided to storm the White House."

In the end, the coup leaders' attempt to roll back the clock only hastened the end of the system they wanted to preserve. Although official dissolution of the Soviet Union would not take place until December 25, 1991, after August 22 the USSR existed in name only.