Yeltsin's hour of heroism could return to haunt him: Helen Womack foresees an unlikely victim of the Soviet coup trial, which opens in Moscow today

Helen Womack
Tuesday 13 April 1993 23:02

TO ANYONE who had witnessed the brave, wholehearted and even festive resistance of Baltic society to the Soviet army crackdown in January 1991, the rather cheerless atmosphere on the Moscow barricades during the coup attempt the following August was disconcerting. It was hard to explain one's feelings of dissatisfaction at the time but all is clear now. The take-over attempt in Moscow turned out to have been hardly serious and the stand against it was made by a relatively small proportion of the Russian population, an even smaller percentage of whom really knew what they wanted or where they were going.

Now, 20 months later, with Russian society more divided and politically apathetic than ever, Moscow is preparing to put on trial the 12 top Communists who briefly seized power from Mikhail Gorbachev and attempted to restore the stifling order of the old Soviet Union. The trial, opening in the Russian Supreme Court today, should be an important and exciting event but very few Russians give a damn.

The military trial will be closed to the foreign press. Only eight Russian journalists have been accredited. But, because of the brazen way in which both the prosecution and defence have completely ignored the rules of sub judice, the public already has a good idea how the 12 accused, including the former Soviet Prime Minister, Valentin Pavlov, the former Defence Minister, Dmitry Yazov, and the former KGB chief, Vladimir Kryuchkov, will answer the charge that they 'betrayed the Motherland'.

First, they will say this accusation is absurd, as the Motherland they are supposed to have let down was at the time (and still is, according to unreformed Russian law) the Soviet Union, which they were actually trying to strengthen and keep from disintegration. Then the defendants, many of whom have been openly taking part in Communist demonstrations since they were released from prison, will argue that Boris Yeltsin and his democrats have led Russia to penury. And some, such as Anatoly Lukyanov, the former chairman of the Supreme Soviet, may try to implicate Mr Gorbachev in the plot to roll back reform.

If Mr Lukyanov pursues this line of defence, he can expect support from Oleg Shenin, a former Communist Party Central Committee member, who told Pravda recently that Mr Gorbachev had pretended to be a prisoner in his Crimean holiday villa in order to avoid responsibility for a crackdown which had had his blessing. The former Soviet leader has promised to give evidence, although he is in America, where his wife, Raisa, has received treatment for the blood-pressure problems which date back to the stressful days of the coup.

The defendants will try to pass the buck over who sent tanks into Moscow during the three-day emergency and deny personal responsibility for the deaths of three young men who lost their lives as an army convoy bore down towards Mr Yeltsin's White House.

How pointless the deaths of those three posthumously decorated heroes seem now. No doubt their parents are passionately interested in the outcome of the trial, which could theoretically end in death sentences or heavy jail terms for the plotters. But a recent opinion poll indicated only 42 per cent of Muscovites believed there should be a trial at all, while 34 per cent favoured a pardon for the conspirators. On the question of punishment, 22 per cent said there should be none, 8 per cent said the accused should be found guilty but then pardoned, 9 per cent wanted suspended jail sentences, 13 per cent suggested prison terms of up to 10 years, 1 per cent called for the death penalty and the rest had no opinion.

Paradoxically, it could be Mr Yeltsin, who inspired the world when he addressed the crowds from the top of a tank, who could be most heavily punished by this trial. It comes at a time when he is struggling for his political survival, with less than two weeks to go to the referendum on who rules Russia. It will give his opponents an opportunity to point out how the country has sunk since the glorious days of the coup resistance.

The award-winning Russian journalist Alexander Minkin had a typically biting article in Moskovsky Komsomolets yesterday, headlined: 'Pugo was daft to shoot himself', in reference to the former Soviet Interior Minister and plotter, Boris Pugo, who took the defeat of the coup seriously and committed suicide. The conspirators had done rather well for themselves, argued Mr Minkin. 'They didn't bring down the Soviet Union. They didn't send prices spiralling. While they were in jail, we wrecked everything. Now we're in the shit and they look white as white.'

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