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    Yeltsin Becomes the Focus of Russian Opposition in Coup

    By Michael Dobbs
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Tuesday, August 20, 1991; Page A17

    MOSCOW, AUG. 19 -- Within hours of learning that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had been stripped of power in a military-backed coup, tens of thousands of Muscovites gathered all around the capital to argue and plead with the army troops and tank crews who had seized control of the city just after dawn today.

    By nightfall, dozens of army tanks had defected to join protesters gathered outside the Russian Federation parliament building, where the largest and most organized demonstration against the takeover took place. The tanks formed a defensive perimeter around the building, joining hundreds of protesters gathered to defend the building against a feared army assault and to rally around Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the Soviet Union's most popular politician and its most outspoken reformist.

    "The reactionaries will not achieve their goals; the army will not go against the people," shouted Yeltsin, who had scrambled atop a tank parked outside the parliament building to address his supporters. "You are right, Boris Nikolaevich," the crowd chanted in reply. "We will defend democracy."

    {The crowds surrounding the Russian parliament building dwindled to a few thousand overnight, but their spirits were boosted Tuesday morning by a defensive ring of about 30 tanks, armored cars and other military vehicles loyal to Yeltsin. As dawn broke, three tanks flying the pre-revolutionary Russian red, white and blue flag blocked off the western approach to Moscow's downtown Kutuzovksy Prospekt. A column of tanks loyal to the Emergency Committee was reported to have turned back.

    {"We will defend the people," said a major from the Tamanski division stationed outside Moscow. "There is no Soviet Union for us to defend anymore."}

    At street corners and public squares, protesters clambered onto tanks, sometimes placing flowers in the massive gun barrels or jamming metal spokes into the treads.

    In Manezh Square at the gates of the Kremlin, military vehicles were spattered with eggs, as a crowd of several thousand Muscovites chanted, "Free Russia!" and "Down with Yazov!" a reference to Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov, a member of the committee of Communist hard-liners that announced it had ousted Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

    Journalists and other witnesses around the city reported similar scenes of popular rage. "Why tanks?" screamed one gray-haired woman as a column of armored vehicles passed by. "Tanks against whom? Boys! Boys! You are our children! What are you doing? What do you want?"

    The Kremlin crowd cheered when a speaker read a statement by President Bush saying the United States would not support the new Soviet leadership, but one young man, facing a row of soldiers ringing the square, remarked dejectedly: "That's it; that's the end of democracy."

    In a direct challenge to the hard-line coup leaders, Yeltsin called for a nationwide protest strike, declared that the Russian republic would temporarily assume the functions of Soviet government agencies in Russian territory and read an appeal to the Russian people urging "the immediate return of Mikhail Sergeievich Gorbachev to his post."

    "We have considered and still consider that such use of force is unacceptable," the Associated Press quoted Yeltsin as saying. "It discredits the Soviet Union before the whole world, undermines our prestige in international society and returns us to the Cold War-era and the isolation of the Soviet Union from world society."

    Yeltsin termed the takeover a "state crime" and issued a decree declaring that all resolutions passed by the new Emergency Committee should be considered illegal and invalid and that Russian officials who carried them out would be prosecuted.

    "Yeltsin! Yeltsin!" the crowd chanted in unison. "Down with the Communist Party."

    Next to mount the tank was Soviet Environment Minister Nikolai Vorontsov -- the first non-Communist appointed to the Soviet government in seven decades -- who denounced the Emergency Committee's assumption of power as "illegal," saying it was engineered clandestinely without a meeting of the federal cabinet.

    Vorontsov was followed by a beribboned lieutenant general, Konstantin Kobiets, who introduced himself as head of the Russian parliament's defense committee. "Just because these {Soviet} officers and generals are wearing uniforms does not mean that the soldiers will support them," he told the crowd, insisting that troops are not obliged to obey unjust orders.

    Kobiets was cheered lustily, but some of his listeners reacted skeptically. "What sort of a general is he, anyway?" muttered one Yeltsin supporter. "He is a general without an army; they are not going to listen to him."

    Apart from a few Russian policemen barring access to the parliament building with submachine guns, the government of the Russian republic has no security force to defend it. Its mass media, including television and radio stations and a number of newspapers, were confiscated by Soviet officials early this morning, while most independent newspapers also were closed down.

    "We are defenseless," Russian Prime Minister Ivan Silayev told reporters this morning. "We cannot be saved by tanks or submachine guns, for we have neither. Only the support of the Russian people and the support of Muscovites can save us."

    But while the advantage of brute force is clearly on the side of the military and Communist hard-liners, soldiers interviewed on the streets of Moscow today showed little enthusiasm for their task, most of them having been roused at provincial barracks without explanation in the middle of the night and ordered to head for the capital.

    Almost without exception, however, they said they would fulfill the orders of Defense Minister Yazov. When asked if he was loyal to Gorbachev as the supreme commander of the armed forces, one soldier shrugged his shoulders: "Gorbachev, Yanayev, that's all above our heads. We just do whatever our bosses tell us."

    But a young officer commanding a tank outside the Russian parliament building said he would move against the building if ordered to, but that he would not "go against the people."

    "Actually," the officer said, "I have my doubts about the government that's taking over now," and he added that several other tank commanders agreed with him.

    Indeed, most army officers outside the parliament made no attempt to prevent demonstrators from distributing copies of Yeltsin's call for a nationwide protest strike to the soldiers, who seemed grateful for any scrap of information about what was going on. One tank crew, asked by Muscovite protesters whom they had come to protect, replied: "You . . . the people," but they were not sure from whom.

    Many soldiers displayed empty ammunition clips to demonstrate that they meant no harm, and in several instances, armored vechicles backed way from crowds of protesters rather than provoke a confrontation.

    Yeltsin told reporters at the Russian parliament that he had been prevented from reaching his Kremlin office this morning by Soviet security forces. At first, the 60-year-old Russian leader seemed pale and shaken by the unfolding events, but he quickly regained his confidence, angrily denouncing the "putschists" and resorting to black humor. "At least 50 tanks are on their way to this building," he said at one point after hearing a whispered report from an aide. "Anybody who wants to save himself can do so. We are continuing to work." Surrounded by Russian republic officials and his own security men, the towering white-haired Siberian politician then walked out of the building to pose for pictures in front of the tanks. After shaking hands with one bewildered tank crew, Yeltsin quipped to the crowd: "Apparently, they are not going to shoot the Russian president just yet."

    In fact, about a dozen tanks from an elite Soviet armored unit apparently broke ranks with their comrades and defected to the Yeltsin-led opposition, taking up defensive positions around the Russian parliament building. The tanks, said to be part of the crack Taman paratroop division stationed south of Moscow, were dug in around the building last night, their turret guns pointed toward the Moscow River, as hundreds of bonfires sprang up on the parliament grounds around them, the Reuter news agency reported.

    Nearby, radical-reform Russian legislators expressed sympathy for the ousted Soviet president, along with anger at what they described as his lack of political foresight. Former KGB general Oleg Kalugin, who was stripped of his rank and honors last year after criticizing the Soviet security services, said that Gorbachev was partly to blame for today's events because he refused to dismiss conservative advisers.

    "In any other country, anybody who accused the president of bringing the country to the verge of catastrophe would have been kicked out, but Gorbachev hesitated," Kalugin said. "By dodging around and maneuvering, he lost control of the leadership and sealed his own fate."

    As dusk fell, there were more than a few others who pronounced the takeover predictable. But as news of the takeover spread with the sunrise, politicians, diplomats and journalists alike were caught off guard. All across the country, people were awakened by friends telling them to turn on their radios and television sets. "What are you doing in bed?" one Moscovite yelled into the phone after rousing a Western reporter from a deep sleep. "The reactionaries have seized power. Misha {Gorbachev} is finished."

    © Copyright 1991 The Washington Post Company

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