For Soviet Officials in US, Uncertainty Ruled the Day
Spokesman at Tass D.C. bureau defends dispatches to Moscow. TASS, AN EMBASSY, AND THE COUP
WASHINGTON — ALEXEI BEREZHKOV pulls a clipboard off the wall and finds the cable from the Tass foreign desk in Moscow: Congratulations to the bureau for its "expeditious, exact, and objective" work during the week's extraordinary events, the message reads.Overall, the official Soviet news agency did not cover itself with glory during last week's abortive coup attempt. But "everyone knows during the coup that Tass was surrounded by tanks!" Mr. Berezhkov offers. "And representatives of the [junta] were there sitting on the lines" controlling what the agency published. Still, Berezhkov takes a certain pride in the work he and the Tass Washington bureau's six other correspondents were able to do. The bureau filed articles that were never transmitted over the Tass wire, Berezhkov says. But he believes some that did see the light of day - such as straight reports of President Bush's denunciations - contributed to the defeat of the coup. The bureau also faxed directly to Moscow full transcripts of Bush administration statements and briefings spelling out the displeasure of the United States. "It would have been naive for us to make personal statements condemning the coup," Berezhkov says. "Official Washington's reaction would carry much more weight." A few blocks away, at the Soviet Embassy, press counselor Leonid Dobrokhotov echoes those sentiments. "From the beginning, in all our messages, we reflected the deep concern of the White House, Bush, Congress, and the American people; and as the statements here got stronger, our cables reflected that," says Mr. Dobrokhotov, whose main job is to read the world media, analyze it, and present his findings to Soviet Ambassador Viktor Komplektov. Aside from the obvious worries about the well-being of friends and family back home, both Berezhkov and Dobrokhotov found themselves caught in the uncomfortable position of working abroad for an illegitimate government. Berezhkov says that when he heard the news Aug. 19 while driving to work, he knew right away it was a military coup but didn't hesitate to keep working. He put in a string of 12- to 14-hour days, staying mainly at the office but dropping by the embassy periodically "to find out how they w ere feeling." Berezhkov, who has been based here for three years, says: "We got no instructions about how to cover this. We just got a cable saying that, despite events, we shouldn't forget about covering US events, too." Dobrokhotov says the embassy was, like the Bush administration, cautious in drawing any firm conclusions about the change in government. "The first day, we were absolutely uninformed," he says. "All we received was a Tass report saying President [Mikhail] Gorbachev was sick and that documents will show that it's impossible for him to work. When we saw that the prime minister and the heads of the KGB and Defense Ministry were in the list [of the "emergency committee"], we thought maybe it was formally legitimate." There were other reasons to think it conceivable the power transfer may have been legitimate, says Dobrokhotov. The timing seemed wrong for a coup. It would have made more sense this winter, when the food situation would be worse, he says. And it also seemed "impossible to imagine" for Gorbachev that people he trusted absolutely would arrange a plot against him. It was during that first day of uncertainty that Ambassador Komplektov delivered messages on behalf of the new rulers - texts of the committee's initial statements - to the White House and the State Department, an act the ambassador has had to justify repeatedly. Mr. Komplektov's boss, Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh, was fired for not opposing the coup. By the evening of the first day, when no statement was forthcoming on Gorbachev's health, the embassy staff became "much more concerned" a power grab had taken place, says Dobrokhotov, who slept only two hours a night that week. When it was clear there had been a coup dtat, "people were depressed." "The ambassador was extremely concerned," says Dobrokhotov. "He could not state that officially, though, because in the 'specific' of diplomatic service, a diplomat can't make an official statement if it does not correspond to the official line of the government." Diplomats were at the embassy around the clock, monitoring events and keeping in touch with the State Department. "The ambassador reminds us again and again, our main task is to preserve US-Soviet relations and not allow a disintegration of relations from the last summit." What would he have done if the coup had succeeded? It is a question every Soviet official in Washington would have had to ask himself sooner or later. Dobrokhotov had clearly thought about it, but would only say: "It would have been the most crucial decision of my life." Berezhkov says he and his colleagues were too busy to think about such matters. But he adds that with the coup over, the head of Tass fired, and the Communist Party collapsed, he is concerned about the agency's future. "It would be crazy to dismantle Tass, because it's a major information-gathering service," says Berezhkov. "But it should be restructured." The Tass staff in Moscow was to gather yesterday to discuss the organization's future. Berezhkov says there were three options: to remain an agency of the central government, become a Russian government agency, or become an independent news agency owned by the employees in some kind of share-holding arrangement - the option he prefers. As for his membership in the party, Berezhkov feels the question is moot. Dobrokhotov says he's made a decision about his party membership, but feels he should tell his colleagues first.