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From The Archives: RFE/RL Talks To Thatcher Following Failed '91 Soviet Coup

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Moscow on June 8, 1990
Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister who died on April 8, famously said Mikhail Gorbachev was someone she could "do business" with.

And in August 1991, when hard-liners opposed to the Soviet leader staged a failed coup attempt in Moscow, Thatcher -- by then out of office -- was quick to condemn the plotters.

Igor Pomerantsev of RFE/RL's Russian Service spoke to Thatcher shortly after the attempted putsch in a rare telephone interview.

RFE/RL: Mrs. Thatcher, you decisively and publicly condemned the coup in Moscow. Did you do it as a politician, as a member of parliament, as a personal friend to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev?

Margaret Thatcher:
[I condemned the coup] as a person who believes in liberty and democracy, a person who believed that [liberty and democracy] had both come to the Soviet Union under President Gorbachev, and a person who believed it was vital that those things continued. Otherwise, all human rights would go into the dark ages in the Soviet Union again.

RFE/RL: From the very beginning you expressed hope that the Soviet people would rally against the plotters. Isn't that a kind of intervention into the internal affairs of the Soviet Union?

No, it is not at all. It is that, having seen on the television the power of ordinary people in East European countries that they were not going to put off by tanks and by soldiers, I knew that no amount of military might can put off a people determined to have their liberties.

I believe passionately that the people of the Soviet Union had perhaps come to take for granted their freedom of speech and worship, freedom of travel, discussion, and so on. All of a sudden, they thought that it might go, and I believed that they would value it enough to make their views felt in the only way they could, and that judgment was correct.

RFE/RL: President Boris Yeltsin of the Russian Federation by telephone and member of the Russian parliament Galina Starovoitova personally asked you to coordinate an international commission to investigate Gorbachev's health. Would you do it?

We have been going ahead with making preparations for that today. I've got someone in touch with the World Health Organization and with other countries. But I think that it looks now as if the coup is over and I think that that particular commission will not be required. So we are just waiting at the moment to hear whether we should go ahead to try to make arrangements or whether we should now assume that it's not needed.

RFE/RL: It seems that we met before at least one of the plotters, Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov. What is your opinion of them?

I have met [Soviet] Defense Minister [Dmitry] Yazov several times. I've seen him in London when I was prime minister, when he came to see me after Mr. Gorbachev came to power, and I've seen him twice in Moscow -- most recently the time when I was in Moscow last May.

I was surprised that the military attempted a coup. I think they should have known that such a coup had no authority, it was totally illegal, it would have been utterly condemned by the outside world, and the outside world would have altered its whole opinion and view of the Soviet Union, and I was surprised that they were involved.

However, the fact was they were [involved in the coup]. This was illegal, unconstitutional, and it is a matter for the proper authorities -- President [Boris] Yeltsin and President [Mikhail] Gorbachev -- to deal with; President Yeltsin in Russia, President Gorbachev in the Soviet Union as a whole.

RFE/RL: Millions of Radio Liberty listeners are now listening to you. I even don't exclude that President Gorbachev is among them. Would you like to use the chance to send a message to them?

I would like to say both to the people of the Soviet Union: You've been in our minds and hearts every moment since we heard about that coup. We'd been thinking about you a lot before that, too, because we knew the difficulties, the economic difficulties, and the difficulties of getting sufficient food for a good standard of living.

We also have been thinking very much about President Gorbachev and Mrs. [Raisa] Gorbachev. Many of us, including myself -- and I had a word with [former U.S.] President [Ronald] Reagan, too -- have been trying to get through to him on the phone because I wanted him to know that his friends in the outside world had not deserted him.

There were, of course, other much more important people -- [U.S.] President [George] Bush was trying to get through, [British] Prime Minister [John] Major, and [French] President [Francois] Mitterand -- we were always thinking of him and trying to help.

The economic difficulties of the Soviet Union would have been worse had a coup succeeded. They've always been difficult; now we have to go ahead with renewed efforts -- the Western world renewing itself because the people have shown their faith in democracy, they are entitled to expect special extra help.

Our warm good wishes to everyone. May I say how much we admired the courage, the boldness, and the leadership of President Yeltsin. It was a tremendous test so soon after his election. He knew he had the authority of the people with him, but his courage and boldness were his own, and we are full of admiration.

RFE/RL: Mrs. Thatcher, I'll tell you the truth. You are adored in the Soviet Union. Is that feeling reciprocal?