MOSCOW, Aug. 20, 1991 (UPI) - Signs mounted all last week of an emerging attempt to oust Mikhail Gorbachev, but they were dismissed by many as the usual August spate of rumors coinciding with his summer vacation.
Even so astute an observer as outgoing U.S. Ambassador Jack Matlock left Moscow last week after four years, dismissing any ideas that Gorbachev's rule was threatened.
Asked at his farewell briefing about Gorbachev's chances for political survival, Matlock said: ''It seems to me that he has excellent chances.''
''The whole four years I have been here, most of them, people have been predicting that somehow he is about to be swept from the scene, and each time there is a crisis, he seems to strengthen his position, Matlock said.
The veteran envoy, carefully noting no one has a ''crystal ball,'' said Gorbachev was the dominant political figure on the scene and that he saw no reason that should change.
But Monday the tanks were on the street, Gorbachev was a virtual prisoner in his Crimea vacation spot, and his vice president, Gennady Yanayev, announced he was taking over at the head of an emergency committee to rectify the chaos Gorbachev's reforms had caused.
The storm signals actually went back to July 20, when Russian republic President Boris Yeltsin issued a decree that all Communist Party organizations had to be closed in the workplaces of his giant republic.
Gorbachev, also the head of the party, first vowed to fight the decree but then left for vacation Aug. 3, leaving a constitutional oversight committee to decide on the measure's constitutionality, in effect letting the party functionaries dangle.
Stripped last year of its constitutional right to rule the entire Soviet Union, the Communist Party was suddenly faced with eviction from the workplaces of the giant Russian republic, with the feeling Gorbachev and Yeltsin were collaborating.
After the eviction notice, Yeltsin boasted on the radio: ''I have opened a second front'' in the fight against the Communist Party. Though mum about who was leading the other front, Yeltsin also said: ''I have saved Mikhail Gorbachev.''
The Communist Party, which until March 1990 was the sole legal political party in the country, struck back, recommending that Alexander Yakovlev, Gorbachev's closest aide and a key perestroika architect, be excluded from the party.
Yakovlev quit the party the next day, Friday, dismissing it as unreformable while issuing a chilling warning.
''The party leadership, contrary to its own declarations, is freeing itself from the party's democratic wing, and is getting ready for social revenge, a party overturn and a coup d'etat,'' he said.
''I would like to warn society that an influential Stalinist grouping has formed in the party's leading nucleus,'' Yakovlev said. ''The group opposes the political course since 1985 (perestroika), hampering social progress in the country.''
The same day the defense newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda printed an appeal from the army party committee for army and navy Communists to close ranks for a decisive battle at the 29th Party Congress in November.
''Comrades. The country has entered a crucial stage,'' it began. ''The economic crisis is being aggravated by a sharpening of the social and political situation.
''Anti-Communist forces are carrying on an open offensive against the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, they are trying to compromise, split and disrupt its positions in labor and military collectives.
''We appeal to you, army and navy communists, to strengthen the unity of the party ranks, to prevent the CPSU from splitting,'' it said. ''On us, the army Communists, does the fate of the country and its armed forces depend in many respects.''
Yuri Mitunov, a freelance journalist fired several years ago from Soviet State Television and Radio and is still fighting the dismissal in the courts, noted Saturday that talk of coups always begins when Gorbachev is on vacation in August.
In general, right-wing, hard-line bluster has always preceded party plenums and Congresses. In the past the hard-line stances were easily overcome by Gorbachev.
But Mitunov said the decree lopping away the tentacles of party control was ''a watershed.''
''The party is seriously thinking about a counterattack, because after this (the end to primary cells), they will be clearly defeated,'' he said. ''They have no moral support and can now rely only on force.''
Another landmark measure that the coup stopped dead was the new union treaty, delegating great powers to the republics including joint control with the central government over the military-industrial complex and wide taxation powers.
Gorbachev had been expected in Moscow Monday for the signing of the treaty on Tuesday with at least five republics, including Yeltsin's Russian Federation.
He never made it.