George Bush photo

The President's News Conference in Kennebunkport, Maine, on the Attempted Coup in the Soviet Union

August 21, 1991

The President. I wanted to report to the American people on some of the latest developments related to the situation in the Soviet Union.

I spoke at length this morning to President Boris Yeltsin. The call began at about 8:30 a.m. And I also talked to Ambassador Strauss, who is now in our Embassy in Moscow, in position. And I also talked, in the last 20 hours, to President Menem in Argentina, to Prime Minister Mulroney, Prime Minister Major, and I will continue these kinds of consultative calls.

President Yeltsin was clearly encouraged by the fact that he had survived another night in the Russian Parliament building without a major assault by the forces supporting this coup. He told me that tens of thousands of Muscovites had turned out to help guard the building from attack.

Yeltsin said he was encouraged by indications that more and more military units and their commanders were abandoning support of the coup. His building is still surrounded, however, and special troops, the Spetznaz, are remaining loyal to the coup plotters. It is those troops who are moving to occupy additional sites in the Baltic States.

President Yeltsin said that the Russian Supreme Soviet had met and declared unanimously that the coup was illegal and without effect. And he also mentioned the importance of the next meeting of the Union Supreme Soviet, which will be held on August 26th. And they are, this is the way he put it, they are vigorously trying to line up support for that Supreme Soviet to declare this coup illegal.

President Yeltsin said he told the Supreme Soviet of the strong support being given by the United States to those resisting the illegal emergency committee activities and that the Supreme Soviet received the news very, very warmly.

There are at present, according to Yeltsin, flights of aircraft carrying his representatives, and also others with members of the emergency committee on their way to the Crimea to meet with President Gorbachev. Obviously he doesn't have all the details on that, and I won't be able to fill you in on any details on that, either.

President Yeltsin said he was prepared for all contingencies. He thanked the United States profusely for its support, which was making an important difference, and asked that we continue to stay in touch with him, which we will do.

Ambassador Bob Strauss, who had just arrived, gave me a rundown on developments in Moscow which paralleled those of President Yeltsin, the reports he was getting there.

Overall, while the situation remains highly fluid and uncertain, I think it is safe to say that the situation appears somewhat more positive than in the earliest hours of this coup. So, I will stay in touch with President Yeltsin, hopefully at some point be able to contact President Gorbachev, which we still are unable to do. But I guess I would say to the American people these developments are positive.

Q. Mr. President, this hardly sounds like a declaration the coup is over. What can you tell us, based on your conversations with Yeltsin and any other information you've got about the status of the coup plotters, whether the emergency committee is still in control there and the whereabouts and the condition on President Gorbachev?

The President. We don't know. We have all kinds of rumors. We have all kinds of raw intelligence coming in. But, Norm [Norman Sandler, United Press International], I think it would be a big mistake to add to the rumor mill. We simply don't know. Yeltsin tells me that he thinks five of the coup leaders have left Moscow; but he, I think, would be the first to tell you that he is not totally certain on this. He also feels that Pavlov is in the hospital. But we can't confirm it, and therefore it just -- there's so much rumor and speculation. I want to try here now to avoid that as best I can.

Q. Do you know who is in control of the Soviet military right now, and were there any Western diplomats on these planes that are supposedly headed for the Crimea to meet with Gorbachev?

The President. Well, there were rumors about a flight that was taking some Western diplomats from the Embassies there. I talked to John Major about that, but there's no evidence that -- when I talked to him, which was 15 minutes ago, there was no -- in fact, he had confirmed that the plane had not left. And yet, rumors had it that they were on their way. So, he had just talked to his emissary, who was going to be on the airplane.

Q. Mr. President, have you tried to reach President Gorbachev since yesterday?

The President. I haven't tried a direct phone call to him personally, but I'll keep trying.

Q. If the Soviets survive this constitutional crisis, would you be more inclined to provide direct economic aid to their economy which will be in no better shape?

The President. We will look at it. The G - 7 took action on that. We will continue to do what both Gorbachev and Yeltsin want, and that is to provide the kind of aid that the G - 7 said they would provide. And we will certainly, if things work out in a satisfactory fashion, get back into the business of furthering the economic recovery, certainly.

Q. Mr. President, could you elaborate a little bit on what you said about these special forces troops? The impression seems to have been that these were troops that were leaving the city, that that was a positive sign. Is it your understanding -- --

The President. There are two different groups of them. One of them is the airborne forces, and I believe that the airborne commander has come over to the Yeltsin side and pulled his forces back. The other are Spetznaz forces, which are the highly disciplined forces who answer to Defense Minister Yazov, and apparently they are still under command of Yazov, and they have not come over to the side of democracy and freedom.

Q. Is Yazov still there?

Q. So, Yazov is in charge, is still controlling the military?

The President. Well, it's very hard to tell. But according to Mr. Yeltsin, I've told you just exactly how it is working as of right now.

Q. As far as you know, though, Yazov is still -- --

The President. I would say that, as far as what Mr. Yeltsin knows, which is what I know, that the defense is not over on the side of Mr. Yeltsin at this point.

Q. Mr. President?

The President. Yes, we're going to work our way right down here.

Q. Mr. President, with Boris Yeltsin anchoring democratic opposition to this coup, where does that leave him if things do in fact resolve themselves satisfactorily?

The President. It leaves the world looking at him as a very courageous individual, duly elected by the people, standing firmly and courageously for democracy and freedom, with enormous stature as a result of that.

Q. Would that change the U.S. approach toward Mr. Yeltsin in any way?

The President. The U.S. approach towards Mr. Yeltsin, as you know, is to be supportive of those who are elected. Ever since he's been elected he has received total support. And before he was elected he was received properly. But I must say in terms of the respect level, I will join others all around the world, not just politicians or elected leaders of countries, in saying that he has shown tremendous courage, and the people appear to be rallying behind him.

And as I said earlier on, to some skepticism, 48 hours ago or more, that: Look, all these coups don't succeed and democracy, once unleashed, is a pretty powerful force. So, I think he will have a well-earned stature around the world that he might not have had -- that he was on his way to having, but might not have fully achieved before all this happened, provided it works out the way certainly the United States wants it to work out. But it is too early to declare these matters over. I don't want to be a part of that.

Q. How about Mr. Gorbachev's position, sir?

The President. Well, who knows? I mean, we can't even get in touch with Mr. Gorbachev, but Yeltsin is strongly supporting him, and so are we. He was constitutionally empowered. And that's the point here. Every time I talk to Yeltsin, or both times I've talked to Yeltsin, he makes this point of strong support for Gorbachev.

Q. Mr. President, are you planning any additional steps today, and have you given any additional instructions to Ambassador Strauss about what he should do?

The President. No, he will be in touch with me probably later today, and in touch with the Secretary of State. I missed a call, I think, from Jim Baker a few minutes ago. But he's over in Brussels. He will have met with the NATO leaders. I expect we may see him up here tomorrow, and we can get a little more detail out of that one. But I don't know the exact details of the Strauss plans yet. He just got there, he's surveying the situation as I asked him to do, and developments are happening so fast that I'll just have to wait and see how the clock runs and what he has to say.

Q. Did President Yeltsin's reports on the activities of the special forces and other military units -- are they mirrored by U.S. intelligence on the subject, or do we have any U.S. intelligence on those subjects?

The President. Well, we have the best intelligence in the world, and sometimes it can accurately predict things, and sometimes it can actually count the beans and tell us the things you're asking about. We have some evidence of force movements in the Baltic area, but I don't want to go beyond that.

Q. Mr. Bush, when you say that Yeltsin says there's a delegation from the Russian Republic en route to the Crimea hoping to see Gorbachev, what is your understanding of what they hope will happen? Do they want to bring him back to Moscow?

The President. Absolutely. They want him back in power.

Q. Do they think he'll be able to?

The President. He was constitutionally put into office, and they want to have the law fully observed. So, they would like to see that, and they would like to see him in there unhampered by the illegality of the coup.

Q. Can you give us any sense of whether they think that will be possible today, tomorrow? Any timeframe?

The President. No, I can't because he was understandably vague as to whether they would get to see Gorbachev. He gave me the names of the people that were on the flight, which I'm not going to give because I think that should come from over there.

Q. Mr. President, given the way the world, if you will, is wired for sound and pictures, it's conceivable that Gorbachev is hearing you right now -- --

The President. I hope so.

Q. -- -- or will. Since you can't get through to him on the phone, what would your message publicly be to him?

The President. I would say: Stay with your principles. Stay with your reforms. Stay with your commitment to democratic process and constitutional law. Stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Yeltsin, as you have been, in seeing the evolution of democracy and perestroika and glasnost in the Soviet Union. And knowing Gorbachev, I'm convinced he will. Knowing what the objectives of the coup plotters must be, I would expect they would be trying to get him to do something else.

Q. Sir, in your communications with the Soviet Union, have there been any assurances to the U.S. at any level that the Soviet nuclear arsenal is safeguarded, that someone can't get their finger on the button?

The President. We see no reason to be concerned about that. Our people are taking a hard look at that all the time.

Q. Sir, I know you were glad to hear Boris Yeltsin say that American support has been very helpful to him. But in fact, you've talked about the limited impact the U.S. can have, your aides talked even more starkly about how little impact the limited economic aid we have, cutting off cultural exchanges. Is that the sort of thing that would have any impact on people, for these conservatives who are desperate to stay in power? Do you think you've any impact?

The President. Yes, I think -- well, I would simply go by what Mr. Yeltsin says. And the statement I made yesterday -- he was profuse in his gratitude for that. And it's not just the United States, but we are the United States of America and, thus, the disproportionately loud voice in matters of this nature.

But, John [John Mashek, Boston Globe], all I can tell you is what the man says. I'll tell you what I said to him. I said, "Now, would it be helpful to have another statement along the lines of the ones I made yesterday?" And he said, he repeated, "Yes, yes, yes, it is very important." And so, you know, there's some people in this country from one side or another of the spectrum that we have that say you ought to be able to wave a wand and solve a problem of this nature in the city of Moscow instantly. That's not what you can do. But what you can do if you're President is put the full force of the American people behind, emotionally, morally, behind the democratic forces. And that's what I'm trying to do. And apparently according to Mr. Yeltsin at least, and I think others, that's what we should be trying to do.

Q. But sir, these are pretty hard-boiled characters -- --

The President. Yes, they are.

Q. -- -- who plotted this coup, and moral pleas to them probably have very little impact. Do you think the fact that they fear this economic aid being cut off, not only by you but by the EC countries, do you think that's the sort of thing that has an impact possibly on -- --

The President. Well, I would think it would have, or I wouldn't have -- you know, I would have done it anyway. But I think it would have. Yes, John, they've got economic problems. As you know, some of their first decrees where they were going to put food on the shelves and do something about medicine and do something about energy, but as they see the reality of the world, they are going to need the help of the outside world. And when they see the United States and they see the European foreign ministers coming together, all saying they're not going to have business as usual, I think it does make an impact. And so, that is one thing that can be done.

Q. Could it have caused the apparent split within the coup plotters?

The President. No, I think what caused the current split in the coup plotters, and this is pure conjecture, is some of them realizing sooner than others that they may have bitten off more than they can chew here. But time will tell on that one, and again, I don't want to be proclaiming this matter solved. I will say, once again, that I am pleased it is moving in the direction that it appears to be moving.

But they've got a lot of troops. They've got a lot of force. They've got a lot of people that look at these matters in a very hard-line way. The one thing I don't want to do is inadvertently contribute to their will and their resolve. But I think some are flaking off because they think that they've gone about it wrong.

Q. Assuming that President Gorbachev does recover his authority, how will this affect his ability to keep the Soviet Union on a stable path? Will he be strengthened by it or weakened?

The President. I would say that, again, a little hypothetical for me to get into: Given Yeltsin's support for him and given the respect with which he's held by leaders all around the world, and that has certainly not been diminished by this at all, he will still be a force to be reckoned with.

Again, they can sort out inside their own matters. But what will be filtered away, should Gorbachev be reinstated, as we hope he will be, what will be filtered out will be the fear of a rightwing military takeover because the people will see that the power of the people to stand up against this illegality is pretty good, pretty strong.

Q. So, in effect, that might indeed strengthen his hand to move in a -- --

The President. It's possible, but again it's too hypothetical yet. We've got a big problem out there, and I'd want to try to keep it as factual as possible.

Q. Mr. President, when you were considering aid before the economic summit and other times, you had said you didn't want to give any serious aid until you saw credible reforms in place and the idea that it wouldn't go to waste. Does this delineation, the support of the people for Yeltsin and Gorbachev and the delineation of the progressives enhance their credibility? Do you now feel differently that you believe the reforms?

The President. I don't feel differently about their credibility. I never doubted the commitment to democracy or the commitment to perestroika, the commitment to reform. What has to happen, and what all of us addressed that problem in the G - 7 summit was, what had to happen was certain things had to take place before you send money.

But when you talk about economic support, we had put into effect in London, agreed on a program in London that was very acceptable to both Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

Q. Sir, you talked about the possibility of Mr. Gorbachev being reinstated. In this case, would you like to see popular Presidential elections in the Soviet Union?

The President. I think there will be, and I think those who are committed to democracy, as we are, strongly believe in that.

Q. Mr. President, given the "character" of the coup leaders, are you surprised they sort of went halfway with the coup and the incredible apparent disorganization of it?

The President. I think it's too early to decree how disorganized it is, but I think they underestimated the power of the people. They underestimated what a taste of democracy and freedom brings. Everyone recognizes that there were serious economic problems, and I think they felt, well, we'll come in there, promise food on the shelves and to solve these problems. And then they saw that, overriding all of that was a commitment by many, many people in Russia and in the Soviet Union entirely, to democracy, for democracy. So, I think there, if this coup fails, that will be the serious miscalculation.

Q. Mr. President, if Gorbachev returns or some other, what you view as a constitutional figure returns, would you urge them to deal more forthrightly and decisively with the KGB, the interior forces and the military -- --

The President. It is too early to sort that out, and I wouldn't be bold enough to give advice to Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Gorbachev to how to treat with those matters.

Q. Mr. President, you mentioned that we have the best intelligence in the world. Since there was a degree of surprise in the coup, do we have a better idea now as to when this coup was organized or who was the ringleader? Do you have any one person that you're now saying -- --

The President. Not yet. And, you know, I know a lot is expected of intelligence. But Mr. Gorbachev had pretty good intelligence. Mr. Yeltsin had pretty good intelligence. And all the intelligence services around the world think they've got good intelligence, and I know we've got the best, and I would simply say, based on this experience, that there are some things you cannot accurately predict.

That wasn't your question. We don't yet know the genesis of all of this, and it'll be a while before anybody does.

Q. Mr. President, you are reluctant to declare the coup over, but some are suggesting if this coup does fail, it will actually mean an end to the hard-liners and help to jump start democracy in the Soviet Union. What's your own feeling?

The President. It is so clear to me that if this coup fails, democracy will take a gigantic leap forward because we will have seen its underpinnings. We will have seen its inherent strength. We will have seen that a courageous leader, standing up for a principle, can rally an enormous number of people behind him.

Obviously, some of the determination will be based on the view of Mr. Gorbachev, but it would surprise me very much if he didn't stay totally committed to this path of democratic change.

Q. But in your view, is this the last hurrah for the hard-liners?

The President. Well, we'd have to wait and see. If I said that, I'd be declaring this over, and it's not the role of the President of the United States. Let's let these matters develop there.

One, two, three, and four, and then I'm out of here. [Laughter] That's the last question.

Q. Mr. President, you said that Yeltsin has prepared for all contingencies. Does he think, and do you think that there's still a possibility of a last-ditch military confrontation, and what does Yeltsin have at his disposal to hold up his end of such a confrontation?

The President. He made clear to me he doesn't think that the military threat is over. I think I stated that in the statement. But he was pleased, obviously, that the airborne troops had pulled back. But he made clear to me that he was not about to say that the threat is finished.

Q. What kind of forces does he have on his side, and is he prepared to fight?

The President. Well, they have some Russian forces, and he's got people on his side. He said, "tens of thousands" was the way he phrased it today.

Q. I'm wondering if you see any parallels between this situation and what we were going through last year at this time where the world unites to condemn an action in hopes of reversing it through sort of moral suasion. It seems to be going a little better this time than last year. But if perhaps you talk about this force as a democracy, is it really just the fact that the people inside the Soviet Union weren't going to accept this?

The President. Well, I don't see a parallel on the democratic question. I do see a moral parallel: The world rising up against aggression last year, the world supporting the forces of democracy. This time there's a little difference. But there's a similarity if you want to put in terms of good-versus-evil which some philosophers might think is a little oversimplistic, and I don't. I think here we have a question of what's good and what's bad. What's good is the commitment to constitutional law and democracy, and what is bad is use of muscle to try to overthrow it.

Last year, what was good was the fact that the world stood up against aggression: democratic countries, nondemocratic countries. And what was bad is you had a handful of aggressors who had thought they could bully and the bludgeon a neighbor.

So, there are some parallels, Karen [Karen Hosler, Baltimore Sun], but I think there are also some distinct differences.

Q. Is the major difference, though, the forces of democracy that are being unleashed in the Soviet Union?

The President. I think it's a very important distinction here because the battle last year was not over democratic rule in Kuwait, for example; it was over aggression. Do you reward aggression or not? Do you let aggression stand or not? So that it was a different question, a different moral question. Both issues have strong moral underpinnings.

Q. Mr. President, the American relationship with Mr. Yeltsin has been fairly awkward at times over the last couple of years. No matter what happens precisely now, would you guess that the development in the last 3 days have changed that relationship forever, one way or another?

The President. In the first place, I think they were proper before the elections. Secondly, I think they properly improved dramatically after he was overwhelmingly elected by the people. That is a significant turning point for the way regimes all around the world, countries all around the world look at Mr. Yeltsin. And they have taken a quantum leap forward now by this man's displayed courage and by his commitment to democracy.

A followup?

Q. I was just going to say, have you found that in your personal relationship with him over the last couple of days that you've had an easier time talking with him? There has been some concern that he was somewhat erratic, somewhat flamboyant previously. Has that been a problem at any point in the last couple of days?

The President. I don't detect any less flamboyance. And in this instance, the flamboyance -- [laughter] -- the flamboyance is a very positive quality as you climb up there and encourage your people. But I don't see a turning point as a result of this. I mean, we had very cordial discussions as I think he, himself, confirmed in Moscow; I think he was accorded when he came to Washington as an elected leader. I think he felt, at least he said so, and I believe him, he felt that visit had gone very, very well.

So, I can't say to you, Jerry [Gerald Seib, Wall Street Journal], that there's been, in the personal contact way, been a dramatic change because I think as I have watched him in action as an elected leader his performance has been superb. And some were trying to make this long ago into a Gorbachev-versus-Yeltsin battle, for example. I think that the way Yeltsin has conducted himself shows you that is not a Yeltsin-versus-Gorbachev battle. I don't think that Boris Yeltsin is sitting around thinking how do we dump Gorbachev. I think he is properly and with feeling expressing himself in total support of Mr. Gorbachev.

Last one.

Q. Yes, Mr. President, oil prices shoot up, and the markets have been unstable. Do you think that if the crisis should be very long, there could be a threat to the U.S. recovery?

The President. It's too hypothetical, but I think the answer is no. But you have to define "long" in something like that. But any time you have a conflagration of this magnitude, there are going to be some speculative losses. But the underpinning of the American economy is still pretty good, and so I wouldn't predict the kind of deleterious effect that the question, at least to me, implies.

I'm in trouble here. No, I'm out of here.

Q. Any hurricane damage at Walker's Point?

Q. Are you going to try to reach Gorbachev?

The President. We might give that another shot.

Q. Will you try to send anyone to see him?

The President. Come back tomorrow. I never knew what luxury you all were living in over here. [Laughter]

Note: President Bush's 99th news conference began at 10:35 a.m. at the Shawmut Inn. In the news conference, the following persons were referred to: President Boris Yeltsin of the Republic of Russia; Robert S. Strauss, U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union; President Carlos Saul Menem of Argentina; Prime Minister Brian Mulroney of Canada; Prime Minister John Major of the United Kingdom; President Mikhail Gorbachev, Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, and Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov of the Soviet Union; and Secretary of State James A. Baker III. The "ten-plus-one agreement" is a treaty of union redefining the relationship between 10 Republics of the Soviet Union and the central government. A tape was not available for verification of the content of this news conference.

George Bush, The President's News Conference 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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