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1991: Gorbachev punishes coup plotters

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has begun his purge of cabinet members and officials involved in the failed coup four days ago.

Two of the three ministers who signed the committee's takeover decree, defence minister Dmitri Yazov and KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, have been arrested.

The third, interior minister Boris Pugo, committed suicide to avoid arrest.

Mr Gorbachev also sacked his prime minister, Valentin Pavlov, and foreign minister Aleksandr Bessmertnykh. Dozens of other party officials and senior army officers resigned or were dismissed.

During an address to the Russian Parliament, the leader said his "entire government" should resign for failing to oppose the takeover.

But Mr Gorbachev was unable to prevent his political rival, Russia's president Boris Yeltsin, capitalising on support he gained from opposing the coup and suspending the Russian Communist Party.

"If we do things like this it will be a witch hunt"

Mikhail Gorbachev

The exchanges between the Russian President and Soviet leader in parliament appeared to indicate that the balance of power in post-coup Moscow is rapidly shifting away from Mr Gorbachev.

Mr Yeltsin forced him to read out a list of those who had supported the takeover, taken from notes of the cabinet meeting on the morning of the coup.

When Mr Gorbachev had finished reading the notes, the president said: "Now, on a lighter note, I will sign this decree suspending the Russian Communist Party."

Mr Gorbachev pleaded with him not to sign the document, telling parliament he would never agree to something that infringed the interests of "millions of workers and peasants".

"You can't say that the whole Communist party supported the conspirators - if we do things like this it will be a witch hunt," he added.

But Mr Yeltsin responded by saying he was not banning the party, merely suspending it "prior to investigation of its involvement in the coup" - and signed the document to loud applause.

Mr Gorbachev praised the Russian Parliament and Mr Yeltsin for their role in defeating the coup, but was frequently heckled during his speech.

During his description of what happened during the takeover attempt one member of the parliament shouted: "We all know that. Talk about the reasons."

In Context
The Soviet Union collapsed four months later and Mr Gorbachev resigned on 25 December 1991.

Russia, Ukraine and Belarus formed the Commonwealth of Independent States, an alliance which was eventually joined by all the former Soviet republics except the Baltic states.

In 1992, Russia took the former USSR's seat at the United Nations.

Mr Yeltsin's path to democracy was far from smooth. In 1993 he suspended parliament and called for new elections after a series of disagreements with his MPs.

When they barricaded themselves into the parliament building, he was forced to order the army in to recapture it.

Mr Yeltsin resigned in 2000 and was replaced by Vladimir Putin.

The 1991 coup plotters were pardoned in 1994.

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