Yeltsin all the stronger for role in blocking coup Russian president rallied democrats THE SOVIET CRISIS

August 22, 1991|By Celestine Bohlen | Celestine Bohlen,New York Times News Service

MOSCOW -- As army tanks were leaving the city yesterday, a triumphant Boris N. Yeltsin appeared before the Russian parliament to a standing ovation.

But in a calm and measured speech, the Russian president shifted credit for the derailment of the coup elsewhere, to the tens of thousands of Muscovites who rose to the defense of their elected government, ready to face tanks with sticks and stones if necessary.

The tribute was a mark of Mr. Yeltsin's sure-footed political prowess. Once again, he has shown the country and the world that he can summon the democratic yearnings of the Russian people and put their political will into play.

"Yeltsin's style is to create the illusion of power with willpower," a senior Western diplomat said, commenting on Mr. Yeltsin's extraordinary performance this week.

From his command post at the Russian government building, Mr. Yeltsin was able to swing together the elements that helped reverse the coup without large-scale bloodshed.

His political mandate provided the cover for those troops who defected from the coup makers' command, and his appeals for calm and discipline were effective in controlling the passions on the barricades.

By the time it was over, he had established himself as the force to be reckoned with. Leaders of other republics, some belatedly, adopted his formula for opposing the coup, foreign leaders were on the phone to him, and people in the street began to speak of him with new awe.

Already, he has pushed all this to advantage -- issuing decrees on the Russian republic's long-sought sovereignty, pre-empting the signing of the union treaty that before the coup was to redefine the republics' relationships, redistributing power away from the Soviet national leadership.

For those who look on his appeal to the masses with trepidation, hismoves to take control of central government agencies, the central television station and army units smack of an ominous overextension of his power. But supporters see these actions as a rightful attempt to defend the republic's democratic gains.

Through the three-day crisis, Mr. Yeltsin's popularity proved itself over and over again. Outside the Russian government building, housewives and workers, students and intellectuals said they had come out in the rain to defend "their" president.

From the moment he clambered, uninvited but unimpeded, onto a Soviet army tank to read his challenge to the new Kremlin authorities, Mr. Yeltsin tapped into deep frustration among the Russian people.

His call for a general strike never went further than a few scattered coal fields, but that failure was drowned out by the roar of the Moscow protests.

Even people who did not join in the demonstrations maintained their support for Mr. Yeltsin, seeing him as a better alternative to Mikhail S. Gorbachev than the orthodox Communists of the coup committee.

The spirit and determination of the demonstrators outside the White House, as the Russian federation building is called, echoed Mr. Yeltsin's own cocky self-confidence.

To the delight of his listeners, he poured unadulterated scorn on the heads of the coup makers, blaming each by name for the blood spilled in January in a crackdown in Lithuania, for the runaway inflation that is crippling people's lives and for the pathetic state of agriculture.

"By their criminal actions, they have confronted the country with the danger of terror and have thus placed themselves outside the law," he said Tuesday. "The 'order' that the new-fangled 'saviors' of the homeland are promising us will turn out to be an iron grip."

Yesterday, in the parliament, Mr. Yeltsin was in no mood to forget those who had forsaken the path of democracy and reform. He said those who supported the coup should be ousted from their jobs while those who led it should be brought to court.

After decades of Communist double-talk, and six years of Mr. Gorbachev's exhortations, such blunt talk has set Mr. Yeltsin apart and given him credibility.

People here vividly remember his trip across the country last summer when, with outrage in his voice, he spoke on television about the miserable lot of those living in towns choked with pollution, of miners living in Arctic areas without hot water, of the appalling state of health care.

On that trip, Mr. Yeltsin preached his gospel of sovereignty, a message meant to encourage local responsibility but which exploded into a clatter of conflicting demands from regions across the country.

Now that the coup attempt has fallen apart, the debate in the Soviet Union promises to pick up again where it left off. The difference now will be the role played by Mr. Yeltsin, who, after these three days, is unlikely to take a back seat to anyone.

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