Below is the text of Mr Major’s press conference, held outside 10 Downing Street on Tuesday 20th August 1991, on the events in the Soviet Union.
I spoke a short while ago to President Yeltsin in the Russian Parliamentary Building. I agreed with him to make public the contents of our conversation and so I will on this occasion refer to the notes I made during our discussion.
President Yeltsin made a number of points that I would particularly wish to refer to:
He said that matters were becoming even more complicated while we spoke. The Group of Eight were taking ever more decisive measures to capture the Russian Republic’s building. They had completely isolated President Gorbachev. He did remain in the Crimea and was as not, as rumour had suggested, in Moscow. There were no telephone communications near President Gorbachev and the runway close to where he was being held had been closed.
Mr. Yeltsin went on to say that a curfew had been announced in Moscow. Intense efforts were being made to take the building in which he and his colleagues were blocked in for the second day running. The statement that had been made by Yanayev about President’s Gorbachev’s health was untrue. President Gorbachev had been examined by a doctor as recently as 19 August; he had been found to be in almost completely good health with only a few very minor complaints.
President Yeltsin went on to say that he could not rule out that his building would be stormed today though he hoped that this would be averted. Hundreds of thousands of his supporters were out on the streets; he hoped that no extreme measures would be taken against them.
He expressed his gratitude in very fulsome terms for the support he had received from the West, from the United States and from the British people in particular. He hoped that we would continue to coordinate the activities of the world community against the originators of the coup in Moscow.
At that stage in our conversation, President Yeltsin interrupted to say that tanks were moving towards the building from which he was speaking. He said to me that he believed he had not very much time left. At that point, we agreed the action to be taken.
President Yeltsin asked that we demand that President Gorbachev be freed; he was the legal President of the Soviet Union. I am happy to give him the assurance that that is the position of the British Government, that we do expect President Gorbachev to be freed and we are making that crystal clear to the Soviet Union leaders who have taken part in this coup.
Secondly, he asked that we should demand the establishment of communications between President Gorbachev and President Bush in Washington and myself in London. I promised I would carry those points further and make those demands.
Thirdly, in the light of the allegations about President Gorbachev’s health, he asked that we demand that President Gorbachev be independently examined in order that his health might be determined. We shall certainly do that this afternoon.
Fourthly, President Yeltsin asked for us to continue to give as much public support as possible to the reform movement in the Soviet Union and to the position in particular that existed within the Russian Republics. I was able to give him that assurance as well.
We concluded our conversation not at all certain what will happen in the next few hours by saying that we would endeavour to keep in touch over the next few days in whatever way we could.
I will take one or two questions but just one or two.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
If the building is stormed, isn’t it time for the West to take much stronger action against the current leadership in the Soviet Union?
I think the action that is being taken at the moment has made the world’s condemnation of what has happened absolutely clear. It is difficult to see what other action could be taken at this time. We do need to make our condemnation clear; it is clear and it will remain so.
Could you at least say that the Western and British Governments recognise only Mr. Gorbachev or indeed perhaps Mr. Yeltsin as the rightful leaders in the Soviet Union?
We have made it clear before that the coup that has toppled Mr. Gorbachev is illegal and unconstitutional. The constitutional President of the Soviet Union is Mikhail Gorbachev. There is a constitutional way to remove him; it was not used. He remains the constitutional leader of the Soviet Union. Other leaders have some legitimacy: President Yeltsin in the Russian Republic is amongst them; they have been elected; there are others as well. They are the constitutional leaders.
Are you concerned, Prime Minister?
At the moment I am determined to do whatever we can to sustain the reform programme, to see if we can get President Gorbachev free, to see if we can avert bloodshed in the Soviet Union. Those are our primary concerns; that is what will govern our policy.
You said the coup is not yet a fait accompli or perhaps may not be a fait accompli. It is, isn’t it?
No, I don’t believe it is a fait accompli. There is certainly resistance to it. It is also clear from the fact that I was able to get through to President Yeltsin a few moments ago that some lines of communication at least up until now have been open, so I don’t think it is a fait accompli yet, no.
But Prime Minister, what did Mr. Yeltsin mean by “not very much time left”? Was he speaking specifically of the storming of the Parliament or does he mean that in his position he doesn’t have much time?
I understood him to mean the storming of the Parliament. I have no doubt that that is what he had in mind.
Have you attempted to speak to the new Russian regime itself, the leaders there?
No, I have not.