A Dividing Issue, 20 Years On: Russia’s 1993 Constitutional Crisis

File Photo of Parliament Building Billowing Smoke in 1993

(RIA Novosti – Konstantin von Eggert – September 23, 2013)

Konstantin Eggert was Diplomatic Correspondent for Izvestia in the 1990s and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice President in Russia.

Conflict is raging in Russia again. Luckily, not on the streets but in the country’s spirited blogosphere.

The reason is the 20th anniversary of President Boris Yeltsin’s fateful decision to disband the unruly Congress of People’s Deputies of Russia and introduce direct presidential rule before the elections to the new parliament ­ the State Duma. The historical “ukaz” (decree) No. 1400, issued on September 21, 1993, sparked a showdown between the presidency and the parliament, which voted for Yeltsin’s impeachment. It ended with armed rebels trying to seize key government buildings in Russia’s capital, and the Kremlin responding with an assault on the so-called White House ­ then the seat of parliament ­ on October 4, 1993. Yeltsin won, and two months later the country elected its first post-Soviet parliament and adopted a new constitution, which remains the nation’s basic system of laws today.

These events are still a very sore point in the Russian national consciousness and provoke overheated debate, just like the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact or Stalin’s policies. On one side of the front line in this debate are those who think that by disbanding the Soviet-era parliament and crushing the rebellion, President Yeltsin averted a civil war and possible Communist restoration ­ although he and the country paid a heavy price for it. As a witness to the events in question, this author is firmly behind this point of view. Admittedly it is a minority viewpoint.

More numerous are those who think that Russia’s first president was a state criminal who overthrew legitimate authority, spilled innocent blood and forced upon bewildered Russia a quasi-monarchical presidency that is now hampering Russia’s democratic progress.

The former group comprises almost exclusively staunch anti-Communists and Westernizers. The latter is a mixed bag of conspiracy-minded nationalists, nostalgic lefties and bleeding-heart liberals, this last group unable to get over the shocking ­ if brief ­ violence of those days 20 years ago.

Broadly speaking, this is a debate about the direction post-Soviet Russia should have taken. The most bitter accusation thrown at those who defend Yeltsin’s actions has a very contemporary resonance. We are accused of supporting policies that led to the current authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin’s chosen successor. As a friend and Russia’s most respected Bible scholar Andrei Desnitsky wrote on Facebook on the sad anniversary: “Yeltsin’s decree No. 1400 laid the foundations for one-man rule in Russia.”

“Do you really think so, Andrei?” is my incredulous reply. A proclivity for one-man rule did not start with Yeltsin and may not end with Putin either. But the continuing inability of Russian society as a whole to internalize not only the collapse of the Soviet Union, but a long and winding road to democracy as well pushes it toward naming and shaming specific scapegoats for what in fact is a necessarily painful transition of truly epic proportions from totalitarianism to democracy.

Gorbachev and Yeltsin, especially the latter, are blamed for what was inevitable anyway. There was no way the USSR could survive in a globalizing world. There was no way that after the moral, political and economic devastation of the Communist period, Russia and its people could sail smoothly toward democracy, as Poland or Hungary did.

Moreover, none of the Yeltsin critics can ever convincingly answer three simple questions about the political crisis of 1993: Was it right for the Russian parliament to give itself constitutional powers to “deal with any question pertaining to any branch of power,” as it did then, creating in fact a collective dictatorship? What should Yeltsin have done in the face of gangs of armed civilians and nationalist paramilitaries, roaming the streets of Moscow and seizing government buildings? Would the leaders of the rebellion, who promised to execute Yeltsin and his supporters, have been beacons of democracy, tolerance and respect for human rights? The answer to all three questions is “no.”

No one is saying that the events of 20 years ago were anything but a tragic page in our history. But I am absolutely certain that a far bigger tragedy and much fiercer bloodshed were avoided then. The price we paid was steep indeed, but then transition in Russia was never destined to be easy and painless.