Soviet army threatens to split as tanks turn to defend Yeltsin Coup marked by loose ends, signs of hurry

August 20, 1991|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- The hard-line Communists who ousted Mikhail S. Gorbachev from power moved yesterday to claim control of the country, but opposition to the coup rallied around Russia's president, Boris N. Yeltsin, and threatened to split the army.

Thousands of people who had gathered outside the Russian parliament building cheered and shouted "Yeltsin, Yeltsin," when tanks from the elite Tamanskaya division shifted position just after 10 p.m. Moscow time and pointed their guns outward.

Other loose ends were appearing in the coup that had seemed so chillingly final in the morning hours. All indications were that the plotters were a relatively small group who had moved selectively and speedily for fear of exposure.

The official explanation of the hard-line leaders of the KGB, the military and the Communist Party who seized power from Mr. Gorbachev, while he vacationed in the Crimea, was that the Soviet president been taken so ill that he was unable to perform his duties. The coup came the day before Mr. Gorbachev was due to arrive in Moscow to sign a treaty that would have curbed the central government's powers over the Soviet republics.

If organized opposition to the coup does develop in the days ahead, it will probably center on Mr. Yeltsin, the elected leader of the giant Russian republic, who frequently clashed with Mr. Gorbachev as the two competed for public support but who yesterday called for the restoration of Mr. Gorbachev to power.

At the same time, the leaders of the coup may find a Soviet population already deeply transformed by perestroika, which Mr. Gorbachev initiated six years ago to rebuild the Communist Party.

Despite the menacing presence of tanks throughout the city, thousands of Muscovites gathered in the city's streets to show support for Mr. Yeltsin or to simply find out what was going on.

"I have chosen to die on the barricades," Igor Chekovinski, a 20-year-old newspaper distributor, said calmly. "I can say one thing. We will stand."

Mr. Chekovinski was outside the Russian Parliament, which was guarded by an unlikely assemblage of barricades. Trucks full of gravel and cement were parked across the roads. They were backed up by electric trolley buses that men and women shoved and heaved into place after taking them off their wires.

Their leaders urged restraint, and no violence was reported in Moscow last night, though one person was reported to have been killed in the Baltic republic of Latvia.

Earlier, Gennady I. Yanayev, the Soviet vice president and the spokesman for the eight-member emergency committee that took power, called on all "genuine patriots to put an end to these turbulent times . . . to provide the necessary support to the emergency committee to get the country out of the crisis."

When asked about the fate of Mr. Gorbachev, he said, "Mikhail Gorbachev is now on vacation. He is undergoing treatment. He is very tired after these many years and he will need some time to get better."

Yuri Kurylenkov, a 44-year-old physicist, said most Soviet people were laughing at such statements. "It's a very bad performance," he said. "It's a pity anyone could believe it. This is a criminal act. It's very important for the world to help us."

Mr. Yanayev said there would be no turning back from the reforms begun by Mr. Gorbachev. At the same time, however, the coup leaders moved to solidify their control of independent radio, television and newspapers and banned public demonstrations to deal with what Mr. Yanayev called "critical situations which call for immediate action."

Mr. Yanayev went on to promise big improvements in housing, food, transportation and energy. "Over the last three years we did a bad job in terms of housing construction," he said, promising improvement.

But Mr. Yeltsin, who called for a general strike to resist the takeover, saw nothing but devastation ahead.

"The clouds of terror and dictatorship are drawing over the whole country," Mr. Yeltsin said. "They must not be allowed to bring eternal night."

Mr. Yeltsin said that Mr. Yanayev and the others who engineered the coup -- among them the commander of the KGB security police and the defense minister -- had illegally taken over the government.

He ordered the KGB to submit to Russian authority and ordered prosecutors to bring charges against anyone following orders of the new regime. He said the new leaders were guilty of high treason.

All over the country, people were starting to choose sides. And while Communist officials were lining up with the hard-liners behind the Kremlin walls, people in the streets stood in the rain, building barricades to protect Mr. Yeltsin.

The crowd piled up bits of broken bricks, parts of rusted-out fences, broken-down sticks of furniture, fragments of sewer pipes and whatever they could lay their hands on from the construction sites that lie, abandoned, all about.

Then they stood through the night, building fires around the building, to protect Mr. Yeltsin.

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