LEADERS of the failed August coup believed former President Mikhail Gorbachev would go along with their effort to preserve the Soviet Union, investigators say.
"This factor was decisive in that it compelled them to try to seize power," says Yevgeny Lisov, chief investigator in the coup case.
"We have no evidence Gorbachev planned to support the coup, though the coup conspirators hoped that his support would be forthcoming," Mr. Lisov said at a news conference Tuesday.
Investigators have compiled 125 volumes of evidence during the four-and-a-half-month investigation, Lisov said. No trial date has been set and no decision made on whether the proceedings will be open to the public.
In all, 15 people are accused of attempting to seize power during the Aug. 19-21 putsch. If convicted, they face 10 to 15 years in prison or the death penalty.
The defendants include such former top officials as Vice President Genady Yanayev, Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, parliament speaker Anatoly Lukyanov, KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, and Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov.
One alleged conspirator, former Interior Minister Boris Pugo, killed himself following the coup's collapse.
The planned Aug. 20 signing of a new "union treaty," which would have greatly decentralized power, prompted the plotters to act, Lisov said.
Their aim was to scrap perestroika-era reforms and return the Communist Party to a position of unquestioned authority.
"The treaty would have brought considerable changes to the structure of the union and to their well-being," Lisov said.
The treaty was never signed, but the failed coup led to the demise of the party and collapse of the Soviet Union, which was replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States in December.
According to confiscated documents, the conspirators intended to abolish elected bodies, or soviets, throughout the country and set up a provisional government council in Moscow that would make all the decisions, Lisov said.
"The position of the accused is that they were acting for the good of the people," said Lisov. "They consider themselves not guilty."
Lisov said the coup had been a long time in the making.
Code-named "ABC," the plot envisaged persuading Mr. Gorbachev to declare a state of emergency. If the Soviet leader refused he would be removed from power.
The conspirators also planned mass arrests of Russian government officials, says Russian Procurator General Valentin Stepankov.
It was the resistance of the Russian government, led by President Boris Yeltsin, that proved to be the decisive factor in the coup's failure.
Although the plotters isolated Mr. Gorbachev at his Black Sea vacation home after he refused to support the coup, no effort was made to arrest Mr. Yeltsin during the early stages of the putsch. Investigators said no documents were found that could shed light on that mystery.
"The conspirators themselves provided no clear answers" as to why they didn't detain Yeltsin, Lisov said.
Lawyers for the defendants insist their clients are innocent.
Yuri Ivanov, who represents Mr. Kryuchkov, said at a news conference last week his client was trying to "safeguard the results of the March 1991 referendum, in which 70 percent of the population voted to preserve the union."
Defense attorneys have complained they aren't able to properly prepare their cases because of a lack of access to evidence, including their inability to question Gorbachev. They want the former president to be barred from leaving the country, saying he knows state secrets related to their case.
But Lisov said there was no legal basis to restrict Gorbachev's movements.
Of the 15 accused, 12 are in prison and the others are free because of medical reasons, Lisov said.
While all have suffered psychologically from their imprisonment, Mr. Lukyanov, the former parliament speaker, is having the toughest time, Stepankov said.
"Most frequently Anatoly Lukyanov isn't in control of himself," Stepankov said. "The others are more firm."
Prosecutors also are investigating the financing of the Soviet Communist Party and are trying to trace gold and hard currency allegedly spirited out of the country.
"We have documents that show that money was sent abroad," Lisov said.