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Two Years Later, Many Russians Look Back With Regret

August 18, 1993

MOSCOW (AP) _ Two years after the defeat of Communist hard-liners in the August 1991 coup, many Russians are inclined to forgive the plotters, a new poll shows.

As prices soar and gangland killings are splashed across Russia’s front pages, some citizens are losing faith in the turn from communism to capitalism.

In fact, a growing minority now believe they would be better off if the coup had succeeded, according to the survey, released today by the Mneniye opinion research service.

″Right after the coup’s defeat, there was a period of euphoria about capitalism. That euphoria has disappeared,″ said pollster Grigori Pashkov. ″Especially among people over the age of 50, there is now a lot of wariness toward capitalism.″

The coup began Aug. 18, 1991, when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and his family were put under house arrest at their vacation retreat in the Crimea.

After the putsch was announced on Aug. 19, Russian President Boris Yeltsin climbed onto a tank and rallied tens of thousands of Muscovites outside the Russian Parliament.

Three young men died in a clash with an armored column, but the air force and key army divisions came over to Yeltsin’s side. The plot collapsed on Aug. 21, three senior officials committed suicide, and more than a dozen others were arrested.

They finally went on trial for treason this year, but the case was suspended indefinitely in May when Russia’s Supreme Court ruled that Prosecutor Valentin Stepankov had biased the trial by writing a book about the coup.

Of 1,600 people questioned in face-to-face interviews across Russia this month, 48 percent said the coup plotters should get ″no punishment″ or be formally pardoned. In the fall of 1991, only 30 percent felt that way.

The number of Russians who think their lives would be better if the coup had succeeded has jumped from 4 percent two years ago to 14 percent this month.

And the number who believe their lives will be better under capitalism has dropped from 24 percent in 1991 to 18 percent today. Most respondents either thought their lives would get worse or they weren’t sure.

The poll had a margin of error of 3 percent.

″Maybe speculators and police who take bribes are rolling in bucks,″ radio technician Alexander Moskvitin said Tuesday. ″As for us, the working class, we’re rolling in filth.″

The eight-man committee that briefly seized power in the coup wanted to preserve the Soviet Union by reimposing old-style rule.

The coup backfired. In the sudden vacuum of central authority, the republics declared independence and the Soviet Union broke apart.

That, above all, is what Russians now seem to regret.

In a February poll of 1,771 people nationwide, 62 percent said they were sorry the union had dissolved. Only 24 percent were glad. The rest were uncertain.

The same survey by the Center for Public Opinion, Moscow’s premier polling organization, found that just one in every five Russians thought the union would be restored by the year 2000. The poll had a margin of error of 3 percent.

For Russians, who were top dog in the Soviet Union, the loss of the empire and superpower status meant a loss of national pride as well as economic position. The failure of Marxist ideology also cut many believers adrift.

Ethnic bloodshed on the fringes of Russia, and separatist stirrings in some of its provinces, have further alarmed its citizenry.

Professor Alexei Salmin, head of political forecasting at Gorbachev’s think-tank in Moscow, believes the former Soviet republics gradually may weave themselves into overlapping economic and military alliances - such as a recent agreement by Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to guard Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan.

″But recreating the union in its old form - absolutely not. Cannot happen,″ Salmin said Tuesday.

The main obstacle to reunification is the non-Russian majority in other former republics, which is firmly against a new union and skeptical of the increasingly fractious Commonwealth of Independent States.

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