Soon to go on trial for their lives, many of the 12 aging Soviet Communists who tried to wrest control of the Kremlin are making no secret of their determination to turn the case into the bruising inquisition of a former comrade: Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
"Gorbachev was a traitor," charged former Vice President Gennady I. Yanayev, a baggy-eyed heavy drinker whose hands visibly quaked when he announced Aug. 19, 1991, that he was assuming the Soviet president's duties.
"If he (Gorbachev) had wanted to prevent the events of August, 1991, he could have flown to Moscow, he could have forbidden our actions, but he did nothing of the kind," Yanayev said in an interview with a British television company. "Now he describes his behavior as heroic."
Evidently seeking to whip up the spy-mania endemic in dictator Josef Stalin's paranoid times, former KGB Chairman Vladimir A. Kryuchkov has strongly hinted that Alexander N. Yakovlev, his former Politburo colleague and Gorbachev's reformist soul mate, was, in fact, a CIA agent.
Meanwhile, a third accused co-conspirator, former Parliament Chairman Anatoly I. Lukyanov, a long-winded law school chum of Gorbachev, is asserting that Gorbachev's account of his forced captivity in Foros was an invention.
According to Lukyanov, although communications between the Crimean resort and Moscow were, in fact, disturbed, Gorbachev could have used two long-distance telephones at his vacation villa that remained in working order or called on his limousine's satellite communications system.
All defendants have now been released pending trial, and plenty more of such startling accusations--and obvious red herrings--seem inevitable before they go before a military tribunal of Russia's Supreme Court on April 14 to be tried on charges of high treason.
If found guilty, the former Soviet and Communist Party officials, most of whom are in their 60s, could face long prison terms or even be shot.
Gorbachev is one of 120 witnesses to be called to give testimony against the defendants. But far from giving the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize winner a clean bill of legal health, Russian Prosecutor General Valentin Stepankov said recently that interrogations of Gorbachev are still going on.
"There is no criminal investigation being conducted against Gorbachev," Stepankov said after sharing club sandwiches and cold tea with a group of Moscow-based correspondents. "But he is a witness and was examined on a number of occasions and will face more examinations in the future."
Specifically, Gorbachev will be quizzed to see if he ordered the bugging by Kryuchkov's KGB of "thousands of private telephones . . . beginning with members of Gorbachev's entourage and ending up with ordinary citizens," Stepankov said.
As D-day for the putsch approached, Kryuchkov also issued orders to put thousands of Soviet citizens under surveillance and ordered lists made of opposition political leaders and legislators who were to be summarily arrested and spirited off to vast detention areas, Stepankov said.
"It was nothing but political investigation directed against innocent people," he added. "That is why Gorbachev is being examined to find out what he knew about the situation, if he received reports and whether he issued some orders regarding wide-scale violations of human rights in Russia."
The revived Russian Communist Party and sympathizers held their own "public tribunal" last week on Gorbachev's tenure in office, with an empty chair marked "M. S. Gorbachev" reserved for the accused, who did not attend.
Gennady A. Zyuganov, leader of the revived Russian Communist Party, railed that "if the director of the CIA had been put in place of Gorbachev as Soviet president, he would have been no less successful in his actions against the Soviet state. In terms of its territory, the country was thrown three centuries into the past. In terms of production, it has lost one-fifth; 90% of its people have become paupers."
The mock tribunal found Gorbachev guilty of ruining the country and sentenced him to "eternal damnation and shame."
The latest accusations against Gorbachev will only further stir up controversy about the degree of his complicity in the bungled attempt by his handpicked vice president, prime minister, KGB chairman, defense and interior ministers and other trusted cronies to assume power in the guise of the "State Emergency Committee."
To the putschists' charges, the reaction from the Gorbachev camp has been flat denial, plus transparent hints that the administration of present Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, no fan of the former Soviet leader, is in collusion, somehow.
"All this is being undertaken to discredit Gorbachev--and this campaign is coordinated by some power structures at the very top," said Anatoly A. Likhotal, the former president's spokesman. "The witnesses' testimony changed a lot after they got access to lawyers--and it now looks very well-coordinated."
Likhotal said he investigated the availability of phones at Foros himself. There was a satellite telephone in Gorbachev's black Zil, but the limousine was kept locked and parked in a garage guarded by a man with a machine gun, he said. A bodyguard loyal to Gorbachev was allowed to use a radio telephone for two minutes to call his wife, but it was then disconnected, Likhotal said.
As much as is humanly possible, Gorbachev is trying to ignore the charges of his erstwhile subordinates, Likhotal said.
"There is a good proverb in America: Never wrestle with a pig. You'll get dirty, but only the pig will like it," he said.
But Gorbachev's problems are not limited to the events of August, 1991. Stepankov confirmed that Russian authorities are probing separate allegations that he committed acts "damaging to the state" while president.
Viktor Ilyukhin, self-styled prosecutor at the "tribunal," has given the details: Under a "shameful" 1990 border agreement with the United States, Gorbachev allegedly deeded "without any reason" 51,000 square kilometers of the Bering Sea to the Americans.
Allegedly on Gorbachev's instructions, under the U.S.-Soviet pact scrapping intermediate-range nuclear forces, the Soviets also agreed to eliminate the SS-23 missile, although the Americans could offer no reciprocal cut. The damage to Soviet security, Ilyukhin claimed, was "colossal."
According to Likhotal, those accusations come straight from the Russian Security Ministry, heir to the KGB. "This is a typical 'empire strikes back' situation," he said. All negotiations, Gorbachev maintains, went through proper channels of the Soviet bureaucracy.
In one accusation that admittedly dovetails with Gorbachev's ingrained political style, Lukyanov asserted that once the putsch was under way, Gorbachev played a devious waiting game.
If the State Emergency Committee came out on top, Gorbachev could come back to Moscow and resume command as one of its number, Lukyanov said. But if it failed and the pro-reform democrats led by Yeltsin won, Gorbachev could return on a "white horse" as a fellow democrat.
There was only one miscalculation in Gorbachev's alleged "tightrope walk," Lukyanov asserted: The victors of August, 1991--Yeltsin and the other democrats--did not want Gorbachev to remain in power and got rid of him.