Russian Court Clears Last ’91 Anti-Gorbachev Plotter
In the end, not one of the men who plotted to overthrow Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in the 1991 failed coup will be punished: On Thursday, Gen. Valentin I. Varennikov, the last of 12 defendants, was acquitted of treason by the Military Collegium of the Russian Supreme Court.
That brought to a close a three-year trial that has degenerated from high political drama to disturbing farce.
The other leaders of the hard-line August coup, whose collapse brought on the breakup of the Soviet Union by the following December, have either died, had the cases against them dismissed because of poor health or been pardoned under a political amnesty declared by Parliament in February.
Varennikov, formerly deputy defense minister, was the only defendant to reject the amnesty and demand a trial, where he argued that it was Gorbachev who should be tried for treason for allowing the Soviet Union to disintegrate.
The 70-year-old general said his only regret was that the coup, which horrified the world, failed.
Thursday’s verdict was greeted by cries of “Thank you!” from about 150 spectators who have come to the courtroom each day to cheer Varennikov--and to heckle Gorbachev, who put in a cameo appearance last month to denounce the general’s testimony as “arrogant lies” and “slander.”
Varennikov, the former commander of Soviet ground forces, declared his acquittal to be “proof of Mikhail Gorbachev’s guilt,” and said he would now set about promoting “the revival of our fatherland.”
Varennikov has asked the Russian prosecutor general to press treason charges against Gorbachev and called on Parliament to hold an inquiry into the breakup of the Soviet Union. He said it is now up to the authorities “to decide who should be put in the dock next.”
In exonerating Varennikov, the court noted the general was not a member of the State Emergency Committee but did its bidding on the orders of his boss, then-Defense Minister Dmitri T. Yazov. Hence, the court said, Varennikov was only following orders.
Further, the court found no evidence that Varennikov knew his orders were illegal, saying he had no way of knowing his superiors had placed Gorbachev under house arrest at his vacation home in the Crimea.
Varennikov’s lawyer asserted that Gorbachev had secretly gone along with the coup, a charge the Nobel laureate furiously denied. Gorbachev said he was held incommunicado for almost three days while the State Emergency Committee held a news conference claiming that it had temporarily assumed power because of his illness.
The court ruled that Varennikov’s decision to support the coup did not constitute a betrayal of his country, the Soviet Union.
In a 45-minute reading of the verdict, the court declared Varennikov’s “goals and interests were not mercenary ones. . . . He was interested only in preserving and strengthening his country, which fully corresponds to the will of the people expressed in the referendum on March 17, 1991,” in which Soviet citizens voted to keep the Soviet Union intact.
A Gorbachev spokesman denounced the ruling, saying it sets a dangerous precedent for Russia. “Now anyone who tries to organize a coup, fails, and is put on trial can say, ‘I was following orders’ and get away with it,” said Vladimir A. Polyakov of the Gorbachev Foundation.
“Sometimes, in this country, the boundaries of reason are transcended,” Polyakov added. “You can commit a crime, be put on trial, be acquitted and become a national hero. This is what happened today.”
The only consolation, he said, was that because Varennikov was not a member of the State Emergency Committee, the court ruling cannot be interpreted as meaning that group is blameless; also at no point did the court say the attempted coup was legal.
In his new memoir, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin describes Varennikov as part of the “radical wing of the conspiracy” to overthrow Gorbachev, a man who personified the ambitions of the military-industrial complex. Among other things, Yeltsin writes that, on the first day of the coup, Varennikov made telephone calls and sent dispatches “demanding that this ‘playing democracy’ and ‘the opportunist Yeltsin’ be put to a stop.”
Still, Varennikov’s acquittal became all but inevitable Wednesday when prosecutor Arkady Danilov asked the court to find the defendant not guilty, a move that is permitted under Russian law.
The prosecutor general’s office said Danilov was acting independently but has not said whether it agrees with his actions. The prosecutor’s office can ask that the case be reviewed by the full Supreme Court, but none of Varennikov’s foes held out hope that the verdict would be overturned.
Instead, a Yeltsin spokesman tried to play down the case, saying the trial had become a farce and the acquittal was politically meaningless. “However much Varennikov and the other ‘heroes’ of yesterday puff out their cheeks (in pride), they will receive no political credibility,” the spokesman said.
For Gorbachev, who has hinted that he might consider a run for the Russian presidency in 1996, the decision was a final humiliation. The man who tried to make the Soviet Union into a nation ruled by law, not by arbitrary Communist Party fiat, had agreed to testify at the trial because he said he wanted to see Russians stop solving their problems by force. “We’ll never accept the law if we forgive everything,” Gorbachev testified.
Viktor Yaskin, the court chairman, said he did not doubt that public reaction to the decision would be “mixed.” But he said the decision was based “not on sympathies, antipathies or opinions, but only on the law.”