Capitalism prevails as communism goes on trial

THE CHIEF prosecutor has co-authored a book and had chunks of it excerpted in Newsweek. Confidential evidence has been smuggled abroad and published in Der Spiegel. The defendants are out of jail, feted as celebrities and demanding fees for interviews with the foreign media.

All this before the trial even starts. For everyone concerned, the last spasm of communism has produced a lucrative frenzy of capitalism. But now, after the passage of many months and many more thousands of dollars, it is the turn of the Military Board of Russia's Supreme Court to judge the 12 die-hard communists accused of masterminding the August 1991 putsch.

The judge who will hear the case, Anatoly Ukolov, has tried to restore a measure of dignity. While the defendants and the prosecutor, Valentin Stepankov, have abused each other in public, defying the rules on cases sub judice, Judge Ukolov has remained studiously silent. An armed guard stands at the door of his chambers; special locks and a new alarm system protect 145 volumes of material; all requests for interviews are rejected.

'It is the first time that an official involved in this case has been so punctilious,' said Valery Rudnev, legal affairs correspondent for Izvestia. Compare the Judge with Mr Stepankov, the chief prosecutor, who insists he had a 'moral right' to publish a book about his investigation.

It is almost 20 months since Tass announced the first news of what, for all the vodka-soaked bungling and sordid profiteering that followed, remains a turning point in the 20th century. 'Gorbachev Removal' read the headline at 6.06am on Monday, 19 August 1991. The announcement was six minutes late - the first hiccup in a desperate bid to throw history into reverse.

The trial starts on Wednesday when the former KGB head, Vladimir Kryuchkov, the former Soviet vice-president, Gennady Yanayev, and 10 others appear before the Supreme Court. Out of 2,700 people questioned in the investigation, 1,100 are on a list of possible witnesses. Among them is Mikhail Gorbachev, the former president whom the plotters have accused of either sponsoring or tacitly approving the putsch.

Mr Gorbachev would not testify in an earlier trial of the Communist Party before the Constitutional Court but says he is ready to give evidence about the coup. The court, though, must wait: he has just gone on a two-week trip to the United States and Japan.

On orders from Judge Ukolov, the trial will be closed to all but a few Russian media. The arguments that are likely to be heard, however, have been noisily rehearsed in public and actual testimony may provide no more than a few footnotes for historians. Apart from seeking to portray Mr Gorbachev as the initiator rather than the victim of the coup, the defendants will argue that it is meaningless to accuse them of treason when the state they supposedly betrayed no longer exists.

The stakes are still high. All 12 have been charged with high treason and face possible death sentences, though they may only receive modest jail terms. Facing perhaps the biggest risk is President Boris Yeltsin, the man who stopped the coup.

'I think people see things differently than they did in August 1991,' says Mr Yanayev. 'I can walk the street without a guard. I doubt Gorbachev or Yeltsin could get more than a few metres without protection.'

He exaggerates his own popularity. Opinion polls show little sympathy for - and even less interest in - the fate of Mr Yanayev and his colleagues. But he is right when he stresses the unpopularity of Mr Yeltsin's reforms.

The defendants and their lawyers hope to exploit this, turning the trial from a triumph for Mr Yeltsin into a defeat. Rather than recalling his finest hour, when he mounted a tank in front of the Russian parliament, it may remind people of how the hopes of August 1991 have crashed to earth in disappointment, apathy and economic hardship.

'Adversaries of reform count on present difficulties,' says Alexander Yakovlev, the guru of glasnost and target of vituperative attacks by an alliance of communists and neo-fascist nationalists. 'For them the worse it is the better it is. They never gave a damn about the people.'

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