April 4, 2013

Alexander Bratersky is a freelance journalist and former senior political writer for The Moscow Times. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.

Authoritarian rule in Russia, manifested in the ongoing repression of political dissent and human rights activism, has become a hallmark of Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Yet clues to its origin can be found in the bloody events of October 4, 1993, when Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, used tanks to shell his own parliament.

The tragedy that unfolded exactly 20 years ago today is still regarded by many in the West as a victory for the democratically elected president over a coup attempt by “communist-fascist” parliamentarians. That interpretation, however, has always been too simple. Today, the 1993 Constitutional Crisis deserves a reexamination as a violent precursor to Russia’s current undemocratic regime.

In the early 1990s, the Supreme Soviet legislative body was a far cry from the rubber-stamp parliament currently working in Russia. When Yeltsin was elected president of the Russian Federation in 1991, the Soviet granted him broad executive powers through a democratically framed constitution. But the legislative body soon used its independence to challenge the president’s decrees as the latter sought to overhaul the country’s political and economic system.

The struggle between Yeltsin and the Soviet came to a head over conflicting approaches to privatization and market reform. While many left-leaning parliamentarians were willing to transition to a market economy, they were strongly opposed to the “shock therapy” methods favored by Yeltsin’s Prime Minister, Yegor Gaidar. Yeltsin, meanwhile, wanted to institute a new constitution that would expand his executive authority, allowing him to continue with controversial economic reforms despite parliamentary opposition. After the two sides failed to reach an agreement, Yeltsin dissolved the entire parliament on September 21, 1993. The move prompted the Constitutional Court, headed then, as now, by longtime Chairman Valery Zorkin, to declare the president’s act unconstitutional and call for his impeachment.

Contrary to the dominant Western view, the struggle was not primarily one of liberals versus hardline Communists. The two senior leaders of the anti-Yeltsin opposition—parliamentary Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, a Yeltsin ally during the Communist putsch of August 1991, and Alexander Rutskoy, then-Vice President who became opposed to the pace of radical market reforms pushed by his one-time running mate—can hardly be described as reactionaries seeking to preserve the Soviet system.

Rather, the conflict grew from competing ideas about how to move the country forward. As Interior Minister Andrei Dunayev, a one-time Yeltsin loyalist who took the side of the parliament in the October 1993 standoff, said in a recent interview: “I am 100 percent sure that people from both sides wished well for Russia. But everyone had his own path for the country.”

A War of Words Erupts in Violence

After the parliamentary deputies called on their supporters to defend the current Constitution, the Kremlin moved to shut off the Parliament’s water and electricity. Provocations from both sides, and attempts by an uncontrolled mob to storm the Ostankino television station, the main news source at the time, gave the  Kremlin a pretext to fire on the Parliament building. Negotiation attempts under the patronage of the Orthodox Church failed to defuse the conflict. The events were perhaps best described by the Prosecutor General at the time, Alexei Kazannik: “The actions of the crowd went far beyond the plans of its organizers.”

According to official figures, the violence of October 4 resulted in the deaths of at least 150 protesters, government soldiers, and unofficial parliamentary defenders, most of them ordinary citizens and passersby. Many witnesses recounted a much higher death toll. During the chaos, police were nowhere to be seen as crowds ran rampant near both Ostankino and the White House, uncontrolled even by the leaders of their own anti-Yeltsin groups. Some survivors reported that unidentified snipers fired bullets indiscriminately on both sides, intentionally exacerbating the conflict.

There is no consensus among Russians today on how to interpret the events of 1993. In a recent poll conducted by the independent Levada Center, 35 percent of respondents said both sides were to blame for the conflict and 29 percent “couldn’t answer.” Meanwhile, some liberal politicians who oppose Putin’s repressive policies said Yeltsin was right to use force against a recalcitrant parliament. It is true that extremist elements, including neo-fascist paramilitaries, sided with the Supreme Soviet in the crisis; this bolstered Yeltsin’s justification for his actions against the democratically elected representatives. But the extent of their involvement may have been overstated in past accounts of the event. More recently, Viktor Aksuchits, a fervent anti-Communist and a leader of the Christian-democratic movement, recalled that the majority of the people in parliament who resisted Yeltsin were inclined to pursue a moderate, socialist-democratic path for Russia

A Call for Dialogue

What began as a political impasse quickly spun out of control. Violence spilled onto the streets when the pro-Yeltsin and pro-parliamentary forces “took action,” believing there was no point to further communication.

When opposition leaders today speak of civil unrest against the authoritarian leadership, it is worth remembering the events of the past. Following the October crisis in 1993, a new Constitution gave Yeltsin authoritarian powers, yet he declared amnesty for his rivals. It is not impossible to think Putin might do the same for his opponents. Twenty years later, October 4 is an opportunity for a national day of reconciliation, and perhaps even for political amnesty for those jailed for taking part in the 2012 Bolotnaya Square protests against Putin and his administration. These protesters, unjustly accused of taking part in “mass disorders,” have already spent more than a year in pre-trial detention.

The necessity of overcoming the impulse to use force and repression against ones rivals is the lesson of 1993. In 2007, Rutskoy attended the former president’s funeral ceremony to say goodbye to the man he once considered an ally: but for Yeltsin, the gesture came too late. Putin and the leaders of the Kremlin establishment still have time make peace with the opposition and avoid repeating the events of October 1993 on a far greater scale. In doing so, they would set the country on a path to reconciliation that is twenty years overdue.

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