Moscow marchers hail the 'Soviet Union'

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THREE ringleaders of the 1991 hardline coup attempt in Moscow joined thousands of Communist demonstrators yesterday in a protest march against Boris Yeltsin and his market reforms. The mainly elderly protesters, numbering about 20,000, carried red hammer-and-sickle flags and chanted 'Soviet Union, Soviet Union' as they made their way to the Kremlin walls.

Anti-Yeltsin protests organised by the recently re-legalised Communist Party are common in these times of economic hardship. But yesterday's march managed to attract the former KGB chief, Vladimir Kryuchkov, the former Soviet prime minister, Valentin Pavlov, and the senior Communist Party official Oleg Baklanov. The three have just come out of prison and, together with the four other surviving members of the Emergency Committee which briefly seized power from Mikhail Gorbachev, go on trial in April.

The rally, tiny compared with the mass pro-democracy demonstrations which helped to propel Mr Yeltsin to power, was called to mark 23 February which is not only Armed Forces Day but also a day of general celebration for men in the former Soviet Union. The Communists are planning another rally called the 'March of the Empty Pots' to mark International Women's Day on 8 March.

Eyebrows were raised in the military yesterday when Mr Yeltsin decided to continue a holiday at his dacha instead of appearing at a traditional wreath-laying ceremony to mark the military festival: 23 February, the anniversary of the founding of the Soviet army in 1918, has always been important for Russian soldiers and officers and in the past the Kremlin leader would be sure to be at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Mr Yeltsin did what was expected of him last year but yesterday sent his deputy, Alexander Rutskoi.

The President was not in fact idle when it came to matters concerning the military. From his country cottage outside Moscow he signed two decrees, one allowing soldiers to work on contract for the army, which will pave the way for a professional rather than conscript force, and another guaranteeing that servicemen's pensions will not be allowed to fall below civilian old-age pensions.

But this will have cut little ice with hardliners in the military who over the weekend met to complain about their poor living conditions and low status and to demand the resignation of Mr Yeltsin's Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev. On television yesterday, General Grachev said the hardliners had no support in the army as a whole. 'These people, striving for power, should understand once and for all: any attempts to draw the armed forces into the political struggle are criminal.'

(Photograph omitted)