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Soviet coup attempt of 1991

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During the Soviet Coup of 1991 (19 August 1991) also known as the August Putsch, Vodka Putsch or
August Coup, a group of members of the Soviet government briefly deposed Soviet president Mikhail
Gorbachev and attempted to take control of the country. The coup leaders were radical state capitalists
who felt that Gorbachev's reform program had gone too far and that a new union treaty that he had
negotiated dispersed too much of the central government's power to the republics. Although the coup
collapsed in only three days and Gorbachev returned to power, the event crushed the Soviet leader's
hopes that the union could be held together in at least a decentralized form.
Background
Since assuming power in 1985, Gorbachev had embarked on an ambitious program of reform, embodied
in the twin buzzwords perestroika and glasnost, signifying economic/political restructuring and
openness, respectively. These moves prompted resistance and suspicion on the part of hardline members
of the Communist system. The reforms also unleashed some forces and movements that Gorbachev did
not expect. Specifically, nationalist agitation on the part of the Soviet Union's non-Russian minorities
grew, and there were fears that some or all of the union republics might secede. After some negotiation,
the republics agreed to a new union treaty that would make them independent republics in a federation
with a common president, foreign policy, and military. The treaty was to be signed on August 20, 1991.
Though the treaty was intended to save the union, hardliners feared that it would encourage some of the
smaller republics, particularly Estonia and Latvia, to press for full independence and join Lithuania
which had already declared its independence on March 11, 1990.

The August Coup


On August 19, 1991, the day before Gorbachev and a group of republic leaders were due to sign the new
union treaty, a group calling itself the State Emergency Committee (Госуда рственныйКомит етпо
Чрез выча йномуПоложе нию, ГКЧП) attempted to seize power in Moscow. The group announced that
Gorbachev was ill and had been relieved of his state post as president. Gorbachev was vacationing in the
Crimea when the coup began, and remained there. Soviet Union vice president Gennady Yanayev was
named acting president. The committee's eight members included KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov,
Internal Affairs Minister Boris Pugo, Defense Minister Dmitriy Yazov, and Prime Minister Valentin
Pavlov, all of whom had risen to their posts under Gorbachev.

Vice president Gennady Yanayev took to the television and radio airwaves immediately after the
announcement with other leaders of the coup and delivered a weak denunciation of the prior regime, and
immediately provoked the belief that he was not the man to deliver the public order desperately sought
by others. Large public demonstrations against the coup leaders took place in Moscow and Leningrad;
divided loyalties in the defense and security establishments prevented the armed forces from crushing
the resistance.

Russian SFSR President Boris Yeltsin led the resistance from the White House, Russia's parliament
building. Following Yanayev's announcement Yeltsin appeared vigorously denouncing the coup. At one
point during the demonstrations, using a megaphone, he stood on top of a tank to condemn the "junta".
Yeltsin's forceful performance provided a stark contrast to the weakness conveyed by Yanayev's
appearance. This image, broadcast throughout the world on television news, became one of the most
enduring images of the coup, and strengthened Yeltsin's position immensely. A planned assault on the
parliament building by Alpha Group, the KGB's special forces, was aborted when the troops
unanimously refused the order. A tank unit defected to the government's side and surrounded
parliament, guns pointing outward.

There were confrontations in the nearby streets, including one where three protesters were accidentally
crushed to death by tanks, but overall there was surprisingly little violence. On August 21, the great
majority of troops sent to Moscow openly sided with the demonstrators or called off the siege. The coup
collapsed, and Gorbachev — who had been held under house arrest at his dacha in the Crimea —
returned to Moscow under the perceived protection of Yeltsin's forces.

Once back in Moscow, Gorbachev acted as if he were oblivious to the changes that had occurred in the
preceding three days. As he returned to power, Gorbachev promised to purge the hardliners from the
Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). He resigned as general secretary of the CPSU, which
was banned by Yeltsin's decree, but remained president of the Soviet Union. The coup's failure brought
a series of collapses of all-union institutions. Boris Yeltsin took control of the central broadcasting
company and key economic ministries and agencies, and eventually Russia itself.

The aftermath
By December 1991, all of the republics had declared independence, and negotiations over a new union
treaty began anew. In September, the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had been
recognized by the Soviet Union, and "re-recognized" by the United States and other western countries
who throughout the era of Cold War had considered the 1940 Soviet annexation of the three Baltic
nations illegal. For several months after his return to Moscow, Gorbachev and his aides made futile
attempts to restore stability and legitimacy to the central institutions. In November seven republics
agreed to a new union treaty that would form a confederation called the Union of Sovereign States. But
Ukraine was unrepresented in that group, and Yeltsin soon withdrew to seek additional advantages for
Russia. In the absence of the CPSU, there was no way to keep the Soviet Union together. From Yeltsin's
perspective, Russia's participation in another union would be senseless because inevitably Russia would
assume responsibility for the increasingly severe economic woes of the other republics.

On December 8, Yeltsin and the leaders of Belarus (which adopted that name in August 1991) and
Ukraine, Stanislav Shushkevich and Leonid Kravchuk, met at Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where they
created the Commonwealth of Independent States and annulled the 1922 union treaty that had
established the Soviet Union. Another signing ceremony was held in Alma-Ata on December 21 to
expand the CIS to include the five republics of Central Asia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Georgia did not
join until 1993; the three Baltic republics never joined. On December 25, 1991, a now-defeated
Gorbachev announced his resignation as Soviet president; the red hammer and sickle flag of the Soviet
Union was lowered from the Kremlin and replaced with the tricolour flag of the Russian state; the Soviet
Union had ceased to exist. Exactly six years after Gorbachev had appointed Boris Yeltsin to run the
Moscow city committee of the party, Yeltsin now was president of the largest successor state to the
Soviet Union.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, which the current president of Russia Vladimir Putin called "the
largest geopolitical catastrophe of the century" [1], resulted in economic crisis in Russia and other
former Soviet republics, which continued for at least five years. The former superpower lost its positions
in the influence over world policy, science and military strength. At the same time, the USA
significantly strengthened its positions. The Cold War effectively ended with the Soviet Union's
collapse, with even the three former Baltic republics eventually joining NATO on March 29, 2004.