Cablegate: 15th Anniversary of 1991 "Coup": Apathy, Promise

DE RUEHMO #9412/01 2401414
R 281414Z AUG 06




E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (SBU) SUMMARY. The fifteenth anniversary of the August
1991 "coup" passed with little fanfare. There were no
official events, and the Russian population greeted the
anniversary with apathy or political antipathy. Despite
concern in some circles over increasing restrictions on
personal freedoms, the majority of Russians appear more
preoccupied with the issues that have an impact on their
daily lives. Many liberals view this retrenchment as a
natural if unwelcome political backlash against the 1990's,
predict a long political evolution back to the ideals
imperfectly realized in the wake of the Soviet Union's
collapse, and look to a new generation of activists to
repackage democratic values discredited during the Yeltsin


2. (U) In the lead-up to the anniversary, Izvestia published
an interview with two of the participants of the August 1991
coup, who recounted the emotional excitement and public
involvement critical to thwarting the rollback of political
reforms initiated by Gorbachev. This sentiment was echoed by
Igor Bunin of the Center for Political Technologists who
commented in Rossiskaya Gazeta that the events of August 1991
represented a moment of "communitas" -- an emotional
political moment which only comes once in a generation.

3. (U) Opinion polls conducted prior to the anniversary on
attitudes toward the coup captured the apathy now prevalent
among the populace. According to a Levada Center poll,
conducted July 14-17 across 46 regions of Russia, 13 percent
of Russians surveyed believe that the coup plotters were
right, 12 percent endorsed Yeltsin, and 52 percent concluded
both sides were wrong. A further 23 percent had no opinion.
Another poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation found
that 67 percent of Russians surveyed between 18 and 35 could
not say whether things would have been better if the coup had
succeeded. While most people remember what they were doing
when they heard the news, few remember the specifics of the
events themselves, apart from the loss of life. They are also
hazy on the reasons: some recollect that it was an internal
power struggle, many no longer recall what Gorbachev sought
and nor what the "putchists" advocated. A notable 15 percent
in the Levada poll had confused the events of August 1991
with those of October 1993.

4. (U) Public indifference to the 15-year anniversary and
resentment of the social dislocations of the 1990's also was
reflected in the number of Russians willing to mark the
occasion. Events on August 19 started with a rally of
Communist Party supporters in front of the Lenin Museum,
whose participants -- including the errant tourist or two --
numbered less than a 100. On August 20, 200 people
representing both "Democrats" and Communists" commemorated
the killing of the three men crushed by Soviet tanks on
August 21, 1991, and a march to the White House on August 22,
National Flag Day, organized by the Union of Right Forces
(SPS) in support of Yeltsin's victory over the hard liners,
garnered about 1000 supporters.

5. (SBU) Antipathy to the series of events that precipitated
the collapse of the Soviet Union remains politically
acceptable, even fashionable. In a press release, Duma
Speaker Boris Gryzlov emphasized the United Russia position
that the coup was a "tragic page" in Russia's history, which
should be commemorated in order to remind Russians of the
dangers of a weak government. Chief editor of the radical
nationalist paper Zavtra Alexander Prokhanov, who supported
the State Emergency Committee's (GKChP) actions in 1991, told
us that the failed coup was a tragic day that people now
associate with the fall of the Soviet Union and, therefore,
nothing to celebrate. He noted many Russians had believed
that it would usher in a "democratic heaven". Instead,
rehashing the universal refrain here, Prokhanov described the
aftermath as a period of rampant crime, instability, and the
rise of the oligarchs. The average Russian, he concluded,
longs for a return of Soviet orderliness.

Liberals Resigned

6. (SBU) Every revolution, Echo Moskvy editor Aleksey
Venediktov noted to us, has its Thermidor. The retreat from
those democratic ideals, expressed but imperfectly realized
in the 1990's, was a natural phenomenon, he maintained, even
if the erosion of those values over the last 15 years was
greater then he would have predicted. Carnegie Center's

MOSCOW 00009412 002 OF 002

Lilia Shevtsova reinforced to us that the mixed emotions
surrounding the anniversary of the coup reflected the fact
that all Russians were stripped of something dear in the
1990's -- not just grandiose notions of empire, but immediate
family connections, with relatives scattered across newly
recognized international borders. Venediktov did not rule
out a more generous post-mortem on the coup that led to the
collapse of the Soviet Union, but argued that this historical
revisionism would come only after the emergence in Russia of
a more assured and economically secure middle class -- the
culmination of a long and measured political evolution.

7. (SBU) The silver lining to the backlash against the
1990's, Demos Center Tatyana Lokshina insisted, was that
human rights activists were being forced to reevaluate their
message to the Russian public. Many activists, she told us,
simply cannot adapt to the new language of Putin's Russia and
to the fact that there is little admiration among the Russian
public for the names and tactics of Soviet-era dissidents.
Trying to promote civil liberties, given the apathy of the
public and the complacency generated by growing economic
prosperity, requires smart image-making and activists who
have a better understanding of Russian concerns. The
message, she maintained, should focus more on freedom and
less on democracy, which she said -- echoing Prokhanov --
evokes images of Yeltsin, the rise of oligarchs, the
non-payment of wages, the unavailability of social services,
and the deterioration of order. Both Shevtsova and Lokshina
pointed to the rise of grassroots organizations -- automobile
societies protesting corruption, environmentalists focused on
Lake Baikal, and citizen's groups outraged over housing scams
-- as evidence of a new generation of civil society leaders.
(In an aside, Shevtsova noted the disdain sometimes evident
among the older, more established, and foreign-funded NGO's
toward these less organized and less overtly human
rights-oriented social movements.)


8. (SBU) The August 1991 coup and the collapse of the Soviet
Union that it precipitated is an event which Putin described
as the "biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the Twentieth
Century" -- a statement that resonates with the Russian
public. The majority of Russians -- as the polling indicates
-- are caught between a nostalgia for the lost superpower
status of the USSR and a grudging recognition that the
changes which followed after August 1991 offer the prospect
for a better life. Hence the ambivalence with which Russians
greeted the anniversary and the enormity of civil society's
task in revitalizing Russian support for democratic values.

© Scoop Media

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