President Boris Yeltsin paid tribute Tuesday to Russians’ “victory of democracy” in thwarting a coup attempt six years ago, as the nation marked the anniversary of a historic watershed with little fanfare.
But the other leading figure in the dramatic events of August 1991, the last Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, voiced new regret that things didn’t turn out differently.
Gorbachev, who lasted only four more months in the Kremlin after the failed coup, rued the Soviet Union’s collapse and said the reforms by Yeltsin’s “authoritarian” government have led to “disaster.”
The two bitter rivals’ comments came as Russia quietly marked this week’s anniversary of an event that hastened the end of 74 years of communist rule.
The coup began Aug. 18, 1991, when several Soviet leaders - including the heads of the KGB and army - set up an emergency committee to govern the country, bypassing Gorbachev, who was placed under house arrest at his dacha on the Black Sea. Yeltsin, president of the Russian republic, made his historic stand on a tank, rallying tens of thousands of people outside the parliament building, or White House, to oppose them.
By Aug. 22, the coup had collapsed. Yeltsin emerged as the most powerful politician in the country and quickly unraveled what little Soviet power remained.
While large crowds rallied on previous anniversaries of the coup, the atmosphere has been less politically charged since the Communists lost last year’s presidential election - their best chance to return to power.
Only a few low-key events are scheduled in Moscow this week, including a Communist rally and a memorial march to the spot where three pro-democracy protesters were killed resisting the attempted coup.
Most Russians are preoccupied with day-to-day concerns in a country still dogged by a protracted economic crisis and violence on its southern flank: Chechnya, Tajikistan, Afghanistan.
“Another life is around us - a life that has none of its former predictability or dullness,” the daily Izvestia wrote in a front-page commentary.
“But its brightness … comes not only from an abundance of goods in stores and the lights of billboards, but also from terrorists’ explosions in conflict zones,” the newspaper said.
Speaking to reporters at the Moscow International Air Show on Tuesday, Yeltsin said a successful coup could have thrown Russia back several decades.
Had the plotters won, “we would not have a democratic country now advancing along the road to reform,” Yeltsin said.
Gorbachev, in an interview with the Interfax news agency, heaped blame on “the Russian leadership” of 1991 for destroying his efforts to keep the Soviet Union intact despite the loss of several republics.
Despite the abortive coup, the union could have been saved - and deeply reformed - but for the Russian leaders who blocked it, he said, without naming Yeltsin. He denied the Soviet Union had been headed toward inevitable collapse.