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Soviet coup: Foreign Minister discusses its impact on the Pacific region; suggests that such political events are not always successful

PETER THOMPSON: Now we speak to Mr Hogue's boss, our Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, who joins us in our Canberra studio and to talk to him, Andrew Sholl.

ANDREW SHOLL: Senator Evans, let's look inwardly, shall we, for the moment? What are the impact of these developments going to mean for our region?

GARETH EVANS: Well, the big question is what the impact generally on Soviet foreign policy will be, of these internal developments. The new committee of emergency has been at pains to make soothing and reassuring noises in this respect. We are going to have to wait just to see how that works out. The danger will be that even if they don't go back on agreements and treaties and positions so far established, there will be a freeze in terms of any further forward movement or co-operation on this whole series of important regional issues that we do want Soviet co-operation on.

ANDREW SHOLL: Well, what about prospects of rearmament in the Pacific, for example?

GARETH EVANS: I don't think that's immediately likely. The Soviets have never significantly disarmed or reduced their naval capacity or their land based forces, and I don't think any rapid move towards a de-escalation of their presence is at all now likely. But equally, I don't think we ought rush to judgment that this all means the reimposition of the Cold War. I mean, the notion of the Soviet troops moving back in to the Eastern European countries is I think, inconceivable now, and generally, I think the focus of what is going on will be pretty much internal rather than external, and its implications for the time being.

ANDREW SHOLL: Well Bob Hawke said yesterday that a return to Cold War foreign policy looked unlikely, but can we rule it out?

GARETH EVANS: Well, I think what we've got to be watching for is the extent of Soviet co-operation through the permanent five members of the Security Council, on issues like Cambodia, on the Middle East, on a whole variety of areas where their co-operation has been crucial in moving the game forward, over the last couple of years. If the Soviet turns back inward upon itself, if the generals start exercising the decisive policy voice, then that co-operation is clearly going to be much less forthcoming, and that will be a most unhappy development. But whether that will go so far as to actually amount to any major new obstruction or any new major concern of international security breakdown is, I think, far too premature to judge, and my instinct is that we don't need to worry too much about that for the time being.

ANDREW SHOLL: Well, when do you talk to the Soviets - the Soviets here?

GARETH EVANS: Well, I don't think the Soviets here are in much of a position to be very helpful in describing what the attitudes of their bosses now in Moscow are. The whole situation is extremely fluid. I think equally, we should not rush to judgment that these developments of the last twenty four hours are irreversible. Exercises of this kind have quite a distance to run, when you have the degree of obvious popular resistance. They might not like Gorbachev very much but they manifestly don't like the concept of a return to the hardline positions of the old days. We are not talking about any obvious parallels with China, post-Tiananmen, because we have a country which has been experiencing glasnost now for over five years and a very different, much more sophisticated, much more highly educated general populace, than was the case in China; and for that reason, every prospect over time, with the co-operation of the workforce and the coal mines and so on, of this coup simply being unsustainable. So don't let's make too many extremely pessimistic judgments at this stage.

ANDREW SHOLL: Well of course, the comparisons are being made already between China in '89, and the Soviet Union now, and Yanayev has already said that he won't rule out the use of force. What's your thinking - how close is the Soviet Union to civil war?

GARETH EVANS: Well, I think it's some distance away yet and I think the initial reaction of Yeltsin and the others in the republics that are going to be resistant to these developments, has not been to call for a violent reaction, but rather one of civil disobedience, economic resistance through strikes and so on. The proof of the pudding will come when the emergency committee is forced to make a decision to actually use armed force to get things moving or to put down a resistance of this kind. And the question will then be whether the army will respond to that, or if the army doesn't, whether there is sufficient resources available to them through the KGB - some quarter of a million men; or the NVD, the Interior Ministry, the police forces and so on. There are a number of different force power centres within the Soviet Union which could be deployed, but equally, there is a potential for a lot of resistance to an attempted reimposition of authority by the national authority figures, in that way.

ANDREW SHOLL: Alright, back to Australia, very quickly - any Soviet citizens here, given the situation back home, can they stay?

GARETH EVANS: There's no question of us making any policy judgment about that. It's entirely a matter for individuals' own decision, what they do in that respect. There are less than 100 so far as we can tell, permanent Australian residents in the Soviet Union or at least in and around Russia .....

ANDREW SHOLL: But Soviet citizens in Australia at the moment, what about them?

GARETH EVANS: Well, there's no inhibitions so far as we are concerned, on them making whatever decisions they want to make about their own future. There is still air traffic moving in and out of the Soviet Union. Our assessment of the situation is that it's obviously volatile, fluid, potentially dangerous - not dangerous at the moment - and it's a matter of really, for people to make their own judgment about such movements. We are saying to Australian citizens they should defer, or consider deferring non-essential travel, but beyond that, we have got no other consular advice to give either way.

ANDREW SHOLL: Okay Senator Evans, thank you for your time.