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Exchange With Reporters in Kennebunkport, Maine, on the Attempted Coup in the Soviet Union

August 21, 1991

The President. Well, I just wanted to report that at 12:19 p.m., I had a phone conversation with Mikhail Gorbachev, and it lasted about, what, 20 minutes I think. It was a good call. Gorbachev is still in the Crimea. He will return either tonight or tomorrow to Moscow. He tells me that things are under control. His first call, I believe, was with Boris Yeltsin.

He stated his sincere appreciation to the people of the United States and others around the world for their support for democracy and reform. He sounded in good physical condition; indeed his voice was buoyant. Barbara was with me, and we both asked him to convey our respects to Raisa, and he very kindly made references to his friendship with Barbara and me on a personal basis. But it was good. It was a good talk. It's a good development.

Now, he will be going back to Moscow and, hopefully, working with the Presidents of the Republic, Nazarbayev and Kravchuk, the Ukraine leader, staying with him. There's a good basis now for all of this.

So, we'll see what happens, but in his view the constitutional authorities are back in power and democracy and freedom and reform have prevailed. That's his assessment; I hope that it's not ahead of where things stand in Moscow.

I have not talked, again, to President Yeltsin, but he believes that Moiseyev has ordered the forces back to their bases. All in all, it's a very, very positive development.

Q. Did he discuss the circumstances surrounding his confinement?

The President. No. No, he didn't, except that his guards, he did say, stayed very loyal to him.

Q. Does that mean he was never under actual physical arrest there?

The President. I have no idea. I didn't go into all of that.

Q. Did you get any detail on the "ten-plus-one agreement," too? What's the status of that?

The President. No. We just got detail on the fact that freedom and democracy have prevailed, and he's expressing his sincere appreciation to us.

Q. What is the main factor in the failure of the coup?

Q. Had he talked to people from the coup that assured him that the coup was over? Have they given him status as President?

The President. I don't know. I don't know. There are all kinds of wild rumors about what's happened to the people involved in the coup, but I don't want to go into that. Some of them may be accurate, and some may not. But he was anticipating some of them coming to see him; he said that to me. But whether that proves to be the case or not, I don't know.

Q. What do you consider the main factor in the failure of the coup?

Q. So, is he the President again? What's his status?

Q. -- -- the coup is essentially over? This morning, you're a little -- --

The President. He feels that way.

Q. And did he say what happened in the last couple of hours that -- --

The President. No. Just the fact that he was elated, and it sounded like for the last hour he was back fulfilling his duties and calling the shots.

Q. What do you consider the main factor in the failure of the coup?

The President. The fact that they underestimated democracy and freedom, and that you can't put it back in a box -- these totalitarian systems. You can't have them come out and take over. You can't put freedom and democracy back into a box and keep it contained, and that's what happened. And as a matter of fact, that's one of the things Gorbachev said, and certainly Yeltzin feels that way.

Q. Do you know anything about the suicide of Yazov?

The President. No.

Q. Did he know anything? Did he say anything?

The President. No. I talked to Jim Baker who had talked to, who was it Jimmy had talked to? Yanayev? No, not Yanayev, Yakovlev is who we had talked to. And Yakovlev had some information on that. But it's all -- I don't want to repeat it, because I don't know whether it's true. There's too many rumors around out there.

Q. What did Gorbachev say about the origins of the coup, what the coup leaders are trying to accomplish?

The President. He didn't say any more than I've told you. I really, Norm [Norman Sandler, United Press International], have given you the main substance of this talk.

Q. He didn't say what he was told, or -- --

The President. We will obviously try to cooperate with the Soviet Union, back in constitutional hands, and with the Russian Republic, with respect for the way Boris Yeltsin has conducted himself, these other Republics that apparently have stood firm with the put-down of the coup and stood firm and loyal to the constitutionally authorized President Gorbachev.

So, I think it's a very fine day. It's been an emotional day in a sense with these -- being right in the middle of this history. And I think people know of my respect for Gorbachev, indeed, the way I feel about him. And I was just delighted to hear that he was fine, delighted that he appeared to be well.

Q. Did you call him, or did he call you?

The President. Well, we placed the call. It's a little unclear. I think it was in response to my call.

Q. Did President Gorbachev say that he intends to have popular elections, Presidential elections?

The President. No, we didn't go into any details like that.

Q. Did you encourage him to work with Mr. Yeltsin?

The President. Well, I think he is working with Mr. Yeltsin.

Q. Does this significantly change the U.S.-Soviet relationship?

The President. I think it's a good day for U.S.-Soviet relationship because I don't think that the fear that some of us have had about, many people have had actually, about rightwing takeovers will no longer be as extant. They tried, and then they failed. And democracy prevailed and reform prevailed. That's what this is all about. So, I think that, I expect the relationship to be, if anything, even better. We've got to wait. We've got to sort out some internal problems. But I explained to him, as I've told Yeltsin, that we're ready to talk to the leaders of the Republic, and certainly we'll be ready to talk and deal with the President of the Soviet Union itself.

Q. Mr. President, just now on CNN's air, the President of Georgia said that this was all a plot inspired by Gorbachev himself. Now, whether that's true or not, what does that say to the state of the interethnic rivalry?

The President. -- -- say to him he needs to get a little work done on the kind of statements he's making. I mean that's ridiculous. There's a man who has been also swimming against the tide, it seems to me, a little bit. And I don't want to go overboard on this, but he ought to get with it and understand what's happening around the world.

Q. Are you saying that -- --

The President. To suggest that President Gorbachev would plot to put the people of the Soviet Union through this kind of trauma and the rest of the world through it just makes absolutely no sense at all. Now, I haven't heard him say that, so I want to hedge it. You've told me he said it; I haven't heard it. So, I've got to be very careful I don't react to something that may not be true. I learned that one a long time ago.

But if that's what the man said, I would just discount it 100 percent.

So, anyway, I've got to go to work. Rita [Rita Beamish, Associated Press]?

Q. Are you confident, Mr. President, it's definitely over then? You're confident that the coup leaders -- --

The President. I'm just telling you what I know here. I have not talked to people in Moscow. I did talk to Jim Baker, and he's very upbeat from the contacts he's had. He had a long talk with Yakovlev a few minutes ago, who is confident that it's over. But it's not up to us to decree whether it's over or not. I'm telling you what these various leaders are saying about it. And it's a good day. It's a very good day.

Q. Any word on where the five plotters have turned up?

The President. Well, no. I've read the same rumors you heard. But one of them turned up. But I haven't heard about the rest.

Note: The exchange began at 1:15 p.m. at President Bush's home. In the exchange, the following persons were referred to: President Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union and his wife, Raisa; Presidents Boris Yeltsin of the Republic of Russia and Nursultan A. Nazarbayev of the Republic of Kazakhstan; Leonid M. Kravchuk, Chairman of the Republic of the Ukraine's Supreme Soviet; Mikhail A. Moiseyev, Chief of the General Staff of the Soviet Union; Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov of the Soviet Union; Secretary of State James A. Baker III; Vice President Gennady Yanayev of the Soviet Union; Aleksandr Yakovlev, a former Politburo Member and former close aide to President Gorbachev; and President Zviad Gamsakhurdia of the Republic of Georgia. A tape was not available for verification of the content of this exchange.

George Bush, Exchange With Reporters in Kennebunkport, Maine, on the Attempted Coup in the Soviet Union Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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