Gorbachev plays anniversary waltz: The former Soviet president has little to offer but nostalgia, a year after the coup attempt which hastened his departure, writes Peter Pringle in Moscow

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The Independent Online
IN THE late afternoon a year ago a group of men, led by the KGB's security chief, arrived unannounced at Mikhail Gorbachev's seaside dacha in the Crimea and put under house arrest the man who had launched perestroika, withdrawn Soviet power from Eastern Europe, was struggling to revamp the Soviet Union and reform the Communist Party. It was an act that precipitated the end of seven decades of Communism and Mr Gorbachev's political career.

Yesterday, the former Soviet leader returned to centre stage for a press conference to mark the anniversary of the failed August coup. He gave a great performance. He was bright, incisive, witty, slicing the air with hands just as he used to do when haranguing recalcitrant comrades in the Central Committee, cocking his head from one side to another, lowering and raising his voice to make a point, full of energy and enthusiasm.

It was the same Gorbachev the world had seen so many times after signing breakthrough agreements on nuclear arms and Europe from 1986 until the end finally came last December.

Only Boris Yeltsin, of all the current Russian politicians, could attract such an audience. The press and television cameras were jammed into the conference hall of Gorbachev's Global Affairs Institute in Leningradksy Prospect.

The problem was that Mr Gorbachev had nothing to add to what he had already been saying for weeks in his newspaper columns and his TV interviews. It was like playing an old record. A nostaglic moment, but not an important one for the new Russia. He was even still selling his old line: a new type of union to the leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

It was a stark reminder of how suddenly Mr Gorbachev became a total victim of his inability to replace the collective system he was destroying with a series of newly- independent states, and how he had been so decisively eclipsed by Mr Yeltsin in this matter.

Mr Gorbachev could not resist a few words of advice for his old political enemy, of course. He did not think there was a chance of the coup being repeated; the process of reform had gone too far. But he warned that the switch to full-scale market reform was tantamount to 'another Utopia and was neo-Bolshevik in character'.

Reporters tried to make him pass judgement on Mr Yeltsin, but he refrained. Asked who he thought was the greatest reformer of last year, he retorted: 'Do you mean before or after last August?' Did he have contact with Mr Yeltsin? Yes, but such contacts had acquired a formal character and thus the connection was unsatisfactory.

Once dubbed the 'village lecturer' by a party critic, Mr Gorbachev reminded his audience how long-winded he can be. When he was asked about Russia's relations with China, he began: 'When we speak about China, we should understand we are speaking about China.'

He knew some unpublished things about the coup plotters, but that would have to wait because it would appear in his book. And he knew something that no one else knew about the Japanese and the dispute over the Kurile Islands. 'Don't we?' he said turning to Yegor Yakolev, his old reformer-in-arms, who sat silent beside him.

'Yes,' nodded Mr Yakovlev.

How did Mr Gorbachev now see his mistakes and should he not return to live in the Stavropol region, where he was once a party boss, and help out his old comrades down on the farm? 'Only people who do nothing never make mistakes,' Mr Gorabchev snapped back. And as to Stavropol. 'They need me here,' he said. 'I was president of a big country.'