THE long-awaited trial of the gray cabal that plotted the attempted hard-line Communist coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991 finally begins today in Russia's Supreme Court.
Despite the apparently straightforward nature of the events, the trial takes place amid a vortex of legal and political controversy. It promises to be a long and potentially destabilizing event in a country whose political life is already precarious.
Twelve former top Soviet Communists are charged with high treason, among them the former vice president, prime minister, defense minister, KGB chairman, and parliament chairman. The charge carries a possible penalty of death or 15 years in prison.
Since their release from prison in January, the defendants have been making their case in public, appearing on television, giving newspaper interviews, and some even taking leadership positions in the revived Russian Communist Party. They have become darlings of the hard-liners opposing Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who faced down the August coup.
The 12 men all intend to not only plead "not guilty," but to deny the applicability of the central accusation against them of "betrayal of the motherland." They contend they cannot be tried under Russian law for treason against a country - the Soviet Union - that no longer exists, having dissolved in the political revolution that followed the failed coup.
On the contrary, the coup plotters argue they acted to save the Soviet Union. The August putsch was timed only a few days before the planned signing of a new treaty that would have transformed the Soviet Union into a loose confederation.
`IF we had succeeded, we would still have one state, the Soviet Union," former Vice President Gennady Yanayev, who headed the eight-man State of Emergency Committee that tried to seize power, told British television in February.
The other central contention of the putschists is that Soviet President Gorbachev was an active participant in plans to impose a state of emergency and that Mr. Gorbachev's detention at his Crimean vacation residence was a myth to allow him to avoid taking open responsibility for the emergency declaration.
"We will insist on Gorbachev giving testimony," Alexei Galoganov, lawyer for former Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, told the Monitor. "I assure you, he will be given a hard time."
Prosecutor-General Valentin Stepankov says the 17-month long investigation revealed no evidence of Gorbachev's involvement. The communications to his villa had been cut off before the plotters arrived to try to enlist him, he told the official Itar-Tass news agency in a February interview. "We came to the conclusion that everything, including the isolation of the president, his family, and his aides, was part of a single plan - a conspiracy with the aim to seize power," he added in a later television int erview.
According to counsel Galoganov, the lawyers intend to mount legal challenges to both the counsels for the prosecution and to the composition of the court. The defense counsels intend to argue that Prosecutor-General Stepankov be removed from the case because he published a book, "The Kremlin Conspiracy," which contained information from the official investigation.
The trial is being conducted in a military section of the Supreme Court because the defendants include two military men - former Defense Minister Marshal Dmitri Yazov and former Soviet Ground Forces Comdr. Gen. Valentin Varennikov. The two people's assessors, who in Russian legal practice join the judge in reaching a verdict, are senior military officers.
"There is no objection to these people personally," says Galoganov, "but there might be an objection to the fact that they are directly subordinated to Defense Minister Pavel Grachev."
The prosecution sent an original list of 1,021 witnesses, including Yeltsin and Gorbachev. The judge has reduced that to around 100, excluding Yeltsin and Russian parliament chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov among others.