Moscow's panic cannot be purged

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This article, written for the Tuesday edition of 'Segodnya' newspaper, was removed by the censor and only appeared two days later.

NOTHING is over yet. In fact, things are just beginning. The mutilated bulk of the White House is an impressive symbol. But it is just a symbol, nothing more. The huge mob that controlled the capital virtually unchallenged for 12 hours has not been destroyed: it has just been dispersed. God knows how much longer the forces of law and order will be hunting down the murderers made insane with the horror of what they have done.

But the rebellion has left the Russian government much more of a legacy than just the prospect of a long and dangerous purge of the capital. It has left a clear realisation that at the critical moment - a moment, moreover, that was foreseeable from the beginning and had been predicted on numerous occasions - the people in charge fell into a state of confusion verging on panic.

A reporter from Segodnya who managed, through the help and understanding of a presidential aide, to get into the Kremlin at about 3pm on Sunday, found the offices of the President's administration as empty as on a normal weekend. The offices came to life very slowly - people were still arriving three and four hours later.

The first, possibly the most crucial, hour after they had all assembled was wasted on heated altercations over who had been most nave: those who believed that it would be possible to compromise with the bandits, those who got caught up in endless procrastination or those who allowed the rebels to prepare their breakthrough.

'So what are you going to do now, you peacenik, you?' 'Me a peacenik? Peacenik yourself]' were the sort of epithets shouted into the phones. At about 5pm, when there was not a shred left of the barricades around the White House, the mayor's offices were being looted and the mob had set out for Ostankino (the TV station), it was learned that Sergei Filatov (the president's representative) was continuing talks at Danilovsky monastery.

'With whom? Who is he talking to over there? Voronin (Rutskoi's representative)?' screamed one of the deputies, burying his head in his hands. Very gingerly, the administration groped for the reins it had almost let slip, calling in turn military units, factories, ministries, political party headquarters, government offices outside the Kremlin and posts on the edge of the city. They found it very hard to establish communications with the regions. The links remained one-way for a frighteningly long time.

Finally, late in the evening, Sergei Filatov's phone got a response. But it was the middle of the night before headquarters began to work properly, taking the initiative. It may have been only coincidental that this was the moment when Mikhail Poltoranin and Gennady Burbulis literally burst in. No matter what, they brought some fresh air in with them.

Just as difficult to explain as the unforgiveably long period when the government was adrift, is the tactic adopted by President Boris Yeltsin that night. Two helicopters landed inside the Kremlin at 6.15. The President walked up to his office - and vanished. His appeal to the nation was read by a journalist, Nikolai Svanidze, on the one remaining television channel. The next guest at the studio could not refrain from asking rhetorically: 'Why did the President not read it himself? It's great that we have Sergei Stankevich (presidential adviser) on television, and Yegor Gaidar (deputy prime minister), and Yuri Luzhkov (mayor of Moscow). But now we need only one man - Yeltsin.'

In conclusion, we have a most alarming lesson. We can delve as much as we like into the details of the furious activity unleashed by the defence ministries in the hours of crisis, but in the end we must acknowledge one thing: at the tragic hour of the rebellion, the regular army units did not come to Moscow to aid the small numbers of Interior Ministry troops.

The army, 'completely loyal to the president', left the residents of the capital alone with a wild beast for almost 12 hours. The Tula division took all evening and all night to 'fly' here. The Kantemirov division 'entered the city' - did they walk here? The Pskov division simply disappeared.

I would love someone to prove to me that everything can be explained very simply. The commanders were waiting to see who won. More specifically, they were waiting to see how the slaughter at Ostankino would end. They were afraid of making a mistake. And as soon as things get tense, they will halt in mid-step, thinking: should we really run to meet the unknown? Now who wants to say that it's all over?

The author is political observer for 'Segodnya'.

Copyright - English translation: Moscow Times.