Baltics mark Moscow coup anniversary

  • 2001-08-23
  • J. Michael Lyons
RIGA - Despite the tumult, the Soviet tanks and the nervousness that surrounded the attempted Kremlin coup 10 years ago this week, perhaps the most lasting memory for Indulis Berzins is the music of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake."

Berzins, then a 34-year-old, independence-minded politician and now Latvia's foreign minister, recalled waking on Aug. 19, 1991 to Tchaikovsky's ballet on Russian television, hours after communist hardliners attempted to save the crumbling Soviet Union in a coup that actually hastened its demise.

With control of state television, coup plotters aired "Swan Lake," which was normally broadcast when a famous Russian died.

Berzins cringed when he heard it. When he learned of the coup attempt underway, Berzins sent his wife and two young children to the countryside.

"We knew that the Soviet Union could not stand, the question then was how much it might cost in blood and agony to bring it down," he said.

It turned out that all that was required was the stroke of a pen.

While Lithuania had declared unconditional independence in March 1990, Estonia and Latvia settled for a transition period to full independence.

But when Soviet tanks sealed off Riga during the coup, Berzins and others, who feared the Supreme Council would be invaded any moment and they would be arrested, realized they must pass legislation proclaiming full independence.

In Lithuania, politicians watched the coup with subtle glee, predicting rightly that it would spell the end once and for all for Communist Party rule.

Social Democrat MP Vytenis Andriukaitis, who was a member of Lithuania's Parliament in August, 1991, was vacationing in the countryside when he heard of the coup attempt.

"I told my friends, 'That's it, we won,'" he said.

But the coup soon turned deadly in Vilnius when Soviet soldiers fired on the Parliament, killing Lithuanian soldier Arturas Sakalauskas.

Estonia declared independence on Aug. 20 and Latvia signed legislation ending the transition period on Aug. 21, hours before the coup unraveled.

Dainis Ivans, the dashing leader of Latvia's independence movement the Popular Front and a Supreme Council member then, remembers watching the tanks creep through Dome Square toward the Parliament.

Unlike when violence surrounded the barricades in January, 1991, there were few international journalists in Riga during the August coup, which Ivans remembers with regret.

Fearing no one would get an accurate description of their arrest, Ivans called his wife in the final tense hours of the attempted coup and said he would place the telephone, with the line open, on a table in the Parliament. She was to listen carefully to their arrest.

"It was the only possible way to send word to the world," he said.

A few hours later, word of the coup's collapse reached the tank commanders and the troops withdrew.

Within hours recognition of the Baltic states' independence poured in from abroad. Several weeks later Moscow too recognized their freedom.

Estonia celebrated the declaration of independence on Aug. 20 this year with a national holiday.

Latvia honored the day with a special government session that included politicians and diplomats from around the region.

"That day Latvia rose from the ashes, vigilant and resolute, leaving the cowardice with the old empire," Parliament Speaker Janis Straume told the gathering.

Leading up to the session, some shared their memories of Riga during the coup.

Former Prime Minister Guntars Krasts, then a young businessman, remembers how openly people talked.

"People talked politics in a very relaxed atmosphere, like I never saw before," said Krasts.

For Krasts the lasting memories of August, 1991 were Boris Yeltsin atop the tank and Boris Pugo, a coup plotter who killed himself.

Pugo, whose father was Latvian, served as Communist Party first secretary and KGB chief here.

Though he believes he understood Latvian, Krasts said he never heard Pugo speak it while he was here.

Following the special government session in Latvia, politicians and dignitaries walked to Riga's Freedom Monument to lay bunches of red and white flowers.

A few blocks away, Alfreds Rubiks spoke for the other side of the coup attempt.

First secretary of Latvia's Communist Party in 1991, Rubiks spent six years in prison after being convicted of treason for supporting the coup.

Despite his time in Matisa Prison, in a cell that used to house anti-Soviet dissidents, Rubiks does not regret his loyalty to the party.

During a press conference during the coup, Rubiks said he watched "not only with joy but with pride. This was a dream for the Communist Party."

Ten years later Rubiks still laments the coup's failure.

"If it had succeeded, there would be no plundering in Latvia like there is today and people would be richer," he said. "It would have been for everybody's good."

Rubiks now heads the Latvian Socialist Party and spends his time traveling around the country preaching neo-communist politics to an increasingly smaller audience.

He says most people he meets show him no ill will.

Like the leaders of the coup in Moscow, Rubiks has never apologized for his role.

In fact, many plotters in Russia still talk about ways they could have won.

Vasily Starodubtsev, a coup organizer and former fighter pilot who is now in his second term as governor in Russia's Tula region, told the Washington Post that the coup's failure was that it misjudged the need for public relations.

"Instead of broadcasting 'Swan Lake,' we should have been explaining what we were doing," he said.

(Additional reporting by Rokas M. Tracevskis and Aleksei Gunter.)