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Wednesday, 15 August, 2001, 15:22 GMT 16:22 UK
Eyewitness: Media dash across Ukraine
Kiev
Nothing visibly changed in Kiev after the coup
By BBC News Online's Stephen Mulvey

The morning of the coup found Kiev's foreign press corps - a handful of mostly 20-something freelancers - in Ukraine's deep south, recovering from a weekend rock festival.

The metallic tone of the Soviet radio presenter announcing Gorbachev's "illness" and the arrival of the State of Emergency Committee declared that the party was over, not only for us but for all non-Russian nationalities of the USSR which had been inching for two years towards independence.


Amazingly, not a blade of grass appeared out of place in Ukraine

A mild hangover made the extraordinary news even harder to take in. But clearly, we had to get to Kiev.

We found a taxi driver prepared to make the long journey across the steppe from Zaporizha, and with the aerial of a shortwave radio sticking out of the car window, we swerved and bounced along the potholed highways.

From the radio we learned that epoch-making events were taking place in Moscow, and expected any minute to run into a roadblock or the back of a military column.

Unchanged

But amazingly, not a blade of grass appeared out of place in Ukraine. We rolled into Kiev in the late afternoon and found it just as we had left it a few days earlier, hot and quiet.

Behind the scenes, however, there was feverish activity.

One of the coup plotters, General Varennikov, had summoned the chairman of parliament, Leonid Kravchuk, to a dawn meeting at party headquarters.

Ukrainians celebrating their independence
Ukrainians were in favour of independence
Kravchuk consented to meet them only in his own office - on the way he spoke by telephone with Boris Yeltsin, and agreed not to recognise the coup committee.

It was in Ukraine too that Gorbachev was being held in isolation, at his plush dacha on the Crimean coast. General Varennikov had visited him the previous day.

Kravchuk told parliament how his attempts to make contact had been deflected: "A telephone operator replied, in her sweet voice, that Mikhail Sergeyevich requested that no-one should disturb him."

By a curious coincidence, both men admitted later that they had considered the possibility of committing suicide if pressed too hard by the plotters - a strangely emotional reaction for steely career party cadres, or perhaps in Kravchuk's case a plea for sympathy.

Cautious approach

As it turned out, Kravchuk's defiance stopped well short of Yeltsin's, and he subsequently came under fire for hedging his bets. He persuaded Varennikov not to introduce martial law, assuring him, apparently, that public order would be maintained.


It was the aftermath of the coup that brought the biggest dramas

Accordingly, as demonstrators flooded the streets of Moscow and Leningrad, standing up for democracy, Kravchuk told Ukrainians to stay cool, and carry on gathering in the harvest.

The following day, 20 August, the same surreal calm continued. Reports trickled in of tanks or helicopters on the move near this or that city. But in Kiev, apart from the appearance of soldiers at some traffic police checkpoints, the only possibly sinister development was an apparent drive in some areas to fit new bulbs in street lamps.

Cynics said this was designed to ensure good illumination for overnight military movements, but this may have been pure imagination.

And then it was all over.

Aftermath

However, in Ukraine it was the aftermath of the coup that brought the biggest dramas.

The coup had been timed for 19 August Gorbachev was about to sign a treaty tying the Soviet republics into a new, much looser union.

For the plotters this treaty spelt the death of the USSR, but for Kravchuk, by contrast, the whole idea of a union was something he was close to jettisoning.

Ukraine was widely expected to prevaricate over the treaty, while continuing to creep towards independence.
Leonid Kravchuk
Leonid Kravchuk told Ukrainians to carry on with the harvesting

But the coup signalled to Ukrainian nationalists that it was no longer necessary to creep, and it persuaded the massed ranks of opportunists in the Communist Party that it was time they began singing from a different hymn sheet.

On 24 August the Ukrainian parliament - two thirds of whose members belonged to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union - voted for independence from the Soviet Union.

Without Ukraine there could be no Union - everyone acknowledged this - so for the USSR this was the point of no return.

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