Prague, 19 August 1996 (RFE/RL) - On the fifth anniversary of the failed coup that effectively brought down the Soviet Union, then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev shared with RFE/RL his recollection of key events that preceded the Moscow putsch. Our Russian Broadcast Service aired the interview in a special program, "August 19 - Five Years Later." Translated excerpts follow.
On August 18, 1991, Gorbachev and his family were placed under house arrest at their vacation home in Crimea. A coup attempt that briefly ousted Gorbachev had begun in Moscow.
The next day, August 19, 1991, the coup leaders, including hardliners in the Communist Party, the Soviet Army and the KGB, declared a state of emergency and sent tanks into Moscow. Russia's President Boris Yeltsin led tens of thousands in resisting the coup. After demonstrations in Moscow that involved at least three deaths, the coup collapsed August 21, eventually dragging the Soviet Union down with it.
Three senior officials implicated in the failed coup committed suicide and more than a dozen others were arrested. The treason trial of the coup plotters, who called themselves the Emergency Situation Committee, started in April 1993, but the case was repeatedly post-poned because of poor health of the defendants and procedural problems.
The trial was eventually suspended indefinitely in May 1994. The defendants were granted amnesty by Russia's new lower house of parliament, the State Duma. The amnesty also freed top officials who led the October 1993 parliamentary-Supreme Soviet-rebellion
Plotters Secretly Taped Gorbachev/Yeltsin/Nazarbayev Conversation
In the interview, Gorbachev disclosed details of events preceeding the coup. He quoted a top Army official as saying plotters had taped a conversation he had July 30 with Russia's President Boris Yeltsin and Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev on future major reforms in the Communist party and to the new Union Treaty, which regulates Moscow's relations with the republics of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev believes the conversation prompted hardliners to put into effect existing coup plans, as the Army General told him the taped conversation was used by then KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov to blackmail Army officials and persuade them to support the coup.
"There are things that a President cannot disclose. This is the statesmen's destiny. If there had been a proper trial of the plotters several facts would probably have emerged. But this did not happen. Two nomenklatures -- the communists' and the new one created under Yeltsin -- joined and created an amnesty," says Gorbachev. "I have already said in public and written in my books what I know and consider possible to disclose on the coup. Now more facts may become known, following other people's disclosures."
"For me, for instance," continues Gorbachev, "an important revelation came from what was said by a top General, who recently participated in a roundtable on security and the future of Russia's Army organized by the 'Gorbachev Fund' I chair.'"
"The general told me that Kryuchkov's people had recorded the meeting Yeltsin and I had with Nazarbayev in Novo-Ogaryovo July 30, 1991, and had used the recording to persuade Army commanders to support the coup. The meeting took place immediately before my departure for Crimea on holiday. We discussed the new Union Treaty that had to be signed by leaders of the Soviet republics August 20. Negotiations with republic leaders had been completed, and it was clear that after the signature of the Union Treaty we could have proceeded immediately to the election of a new Soviet president and of a new Soviet government."
"We agreed on this. Therefore, we proceeded to discuss the reorganization of the government."
"Concretely we discussed several two key positions -- President and Prime Minister -- and agreed that Yazov and Kryuchkov would be asked to retire for age reasons. For the position of Prime Minister, I supported the candidature of Nazarbayev to replace Pavlov. No new position was discussed for Yeltsin. He was to remain Russia's President."
"We discussed also the election of the new Soviet President. Republic leaders had said I should not take part in the election, as this could be interpreted as the creation of a 'czar's' powers for the Union's center. I disagreed with this, as I supported a strong center. Yeltsin supported my position and asked that it be stated that we had agreed I would be a candidate in the presidential campaign."
"We did not discuss other government posts, but it was clear everything was decided: after my return from holiday we would sign the Union Treaty, allowing, among other things, an anti-crisis economic program. After this, in November, I would call a Communist Party Congress, aimed at radically reforming the Party. The meeting had agreed on my three main points for the continuation of reforms."
President Bush Warned Gorbachev Of The Coup
Gorbachev said he dismissed then U.S. President George Bush's warning of a plot against him because he thought hardliners would not push themselves into such an "adventure," when everything had already been decided, and it was clear, said Gorbachev, there was nothing they could use to rally citizens to their side.
"Bush phoned me in June and said he had information that people opposing reforms were preparing a coup. He did not specify the source of his information. I told him that nothing would happen and he could sleep calmly. Bush's source became clear when I learned that then Moscow Mayor Gavriil Popov had warned then U.S. Ambassador in Moscow Jack Mattlock that hardliners were preparing a coup and Mattlock had told Bush."
"I did not believe those people would start an adventure which could clearly only end badly. And this is what happened, with terrible drawbacks for reforms and for Gorbachev. The disintegration of the Soviet Union started. Within two weeks all the republics had declared their independence. This completely took away the initiative from me and moved it to the Russian Supreme Soviet that had defended democracy."
Gorbachev concluded: "Five years ago, we all lost."