Russian court sets trial for coup leaders '91 plotters to cite Gorbachev's role

January 27, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- The charge is treason. The defendants once held a superpower in their hands. The witnesses are to include a former Soviet president.

It opens April 14 -- the trial of 12 defeated men who are accused of launching the August 1991 coup that was supposed to save communism but spelled its downfall instead.

Russia's Supreme Court announced the trial date yesterday and ordered the release of the four defendants who were still in jail after 17 months of pretrial maneuverings.

The trial holds the promise of drama, revelation, perhaps even catharsis. The Russian government will try to prove that these 12 men made a desperate, unlawful attempt to seize power and overthrow the government. They, in turn, are likely to argue that they were acting in good faith to preserve the Soviet Union.

The central figure, of course, will be Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who was then president of the Soviet Union and kept a prisoner in his dacha in the Crimea throughout the three-day coup.

He will be summoned to testify, Anatoly Ukolov, a Supreme Court official, said yesterday. Mr. Gorbachev, who refused to testify in a trial last year over the status of the Communist Party, faces "strict measures" if he should refuse again, Mr. Ukolov said.

Mr. Gorbachev has generally been seen as a victim of the coup, but the defendants will try to portray him as having gone along with their plot. The prosecution and defense essentially agree that the coup was designed to head off a new union treaty that would have given a considerable amount of power to the individual republics of the Soviet Union.

It failed in that aim, of course, because in the end it brought about the demise of the Soviet Union itself.

Gennady Yanayev, the former Soviet vice president who was the figurehead leader of the so-called Committee on the State of Emergency, has said that several of the coup plotters had flown to the Crimea on Aug. 18, the day before the coup, to discuss the situation with Mr. Gorbachev.

They wanted to talk about "the deteriorating situation in the country and to persuade him to agree to a state of emergency," Mr. Yanayev said in an interview with Pravda newspaper last fall.

"Knowing Gorbachev's character, his indecision and striving 'not to be in the know' in any critical situation," such as occurred in Georgia or the Baltics, Mr. Yanayev said, "the comrades attempted to persuade him that to preserve his 'democratic image' presidential powers should be given over -- temporarily, pending a Supreme Soviet session -- to the vice president, who jointly with the Emergency Committee would announce a state of emergency. Then, after the Supreme Soviet approved [as we all hoped it would do] the state of emergency, he would seal it with a presidential decree."

Mr. Gorbachev agreed that a state of emergency was necessary, Mr. Yanayev said, but wanted Supreme Soviet approval to come first.

The plotters thought they had the outline of an agreement. They went ahead with the state of emergency the next day -- only to find Mr. Gorbachev balking, Boris N. Yeltsin declaring defiance from atop a tank, and the rest of the world looking on in horror.

That was on a Monday. Two days later, a delegation from Mr. Yanayev's committee flew back down to the Crimea to reach a new understanding with Mr. Gorbachev. Instead, he ordered them arrested -- and this time the guards listened to him and not to them.

The defense will undoubtedly stress Mr. Gorbachev's apparent sympathy with the plotters. The trial could clarify his role during the coup.

Altogether 120 witnesses are expected to be called. The pretrial reports fill 140 volumes. Eight prosecutors are working on the case. The defendants will be represented by 21 lawyers.

The trial is to begin just three days after a national referendum on a new Russian constitution -- one that presumably will erase the remaining structures of the old Soviet state.

Anatoly Lukyanov, an old friend of Mr. Gorbachev who was chairman of the Soviet parliament and is now one of the defendants, recently described the 1991 putsch as a "last desperate attempt to preserve the Soviet Union, and take emergency measures to prevent the country from sliding into the abyss of economic crisis, inter-ethnic strife, poverty, lawlessness and bloodshed."

He, too, told Pravda that he looks forward to a "just and open trial" that will "give millions of people the opportunity to understand the reasons for the August events."

"I still strongly support the ideas of my party, the Soviet form of democracy and a single union," he said.

Following the collapse of the coup the defendants were taken to Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina (or Sailor's Rest) Jail. Six were released earlier pending trial and two are in the hospital. The remaining four left late yesterday, after agreeing not to leave Moscow.

One coup plotter, Boris Pugo, shot himself (and his wife) rather than face arrest.

Already, jail officials say, they have been approached by "Western entrepreneurs" hoping to buy the jail house utensils of the famous inmates.

Officials say they calculate that an auction of these items would bring in enough hard currency to build a whole new jail.

Besides Mr. Yanayev and Mr. Lukyanov, the defendants are:

Valentin Pavlov, who was Soviet prime minister; Vladimir Kryuchkov, former KGB chief; Dmitri Yazov, who was defense minister; Oleg Baklanov, military industry chief; Aleksandr Tizyakov, the leader of the industrial managers; Oleg Shenin, a top Communist Party official; Vasily Starodubtsev, leader of the peasants union; Yuri Plekhanov, who was the chief of Mr. Gorbachev's guards; Vyacheslav Generalov, his deputy; and Valentin Varennikov, who was commander of Soviet ground forces.

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