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Yeltsin: Shadow of a Doubt

Yeltsin: Shadow of a Doubt

Mini Teaser: Yeltsin had no better friend than the United States. Our support for him, even when he acted illegally, was timely and emphatic. Did it really make sense, however, for us to identify so closely with the fate of one man?

by Author(s): David Satter

The rippled waters of the Moscow River flowed under the Borodino Bridge as crowds of spectators lined up along its banks to take pictures of the blackened facade of the former Russian Parliament building. In the distance, crows circled the devastated building and the golden hands of the Parliament building clock were stopped at 10:05.

The street was filled with traffic and passers-by hurried to their destinations. To all appearances, the Russian capital had slipped back into its usual mood of frantic indolence. But a month after the events of October 3-4 when a pitched battle took place in the streets to decide the fate of Russia, there is an uneasiness in the air, borne of fear for the future and unanswered questions. On November 4, the headline in the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, for example, read "A month after the Moscow tragedy, we don't know the number of dead or their names. Without this truth, it is, of course, possible to live but it's hard to feel like a human being."

Other questions concern Yeltsin. Amid unconfirmed rumors that the number of dead might have been as high as 1,500, many Russians are wondering whether it was right for him to risk civil war by dissolving Parliament, and, although few persons sympathize with the defenders of the "white house," many believe that they were deliberately provoked. On October 4, Yeltsin said, "we did not prepare for war" but he raised the salaries of all members of the armed forces 1.8 times effective September 1, and, in August, promised a "hot autumn." On the morning of Sunday, October 3, a Russian writer left his home on Nezhdannoi Street and felt that there was something missing. He finally realized that in the center of the city which was usually well patrolled there were no police. It occurred to him that someone was organizing a provocation....

The outline of events is known. On September 21, Yeltsin dissolved Parliament and the deputies barricaded themselves in the white house. On October 3, supporters of the Parliament broke through police lines, attacked first the Moscow mayoralty, and then the Ostankino television headquarters. In response, military units attacked the white house and Parliament's resistance was crushed.

The logic of events, however, is puzzling. Yeltsin insisted that he wanted to avoid bloodshed yet many of the government's actions seemed intended to assure that it took place.

In the negotiations held under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II, Parliament was ready to agree to new elections of both the president and Parliament, which could have left the future shape of Russia to the people to decide, but Yeltsin refused. Yeltsin also ordered that the phones, electricity, and water of the white house be cut off, steps nearly certain to push the defenders to a frenzied rage.

At the same time, the supporters of Parliament were given every reason to believe that a resort to force might be a success. Despite trouble at a demonstration on October 2, on the following day there was no show of resistance by the police. This seemed like many to be an invitation to violence. At 3 p.m., the crowd broke through police lines at the Krimsky Bridge and then, thirty minutes later, broke through the police line outside the white house. The demonstrators, quickly joined by trained fighters, seized the Moscow mayoralty in a little over four minutes. Urged on by Rutskoi, the crowd then left the mayoralty for the Ostankino television tower and, for the next two hours, marched unhindered through the center of the city to Ostankino.

At 7:30 p.m. the demonstrators attacked Ostankino with armored vehicles and grenade launchers. In fact, the attackers were outnumbered. According to official figures, the television tower was attacked by 4,000 unarmed persons and a hundred armed men using armored vehicles and grenade launchers. They were faced by 400 armed interior ministry troops and six armored personnel carriers. As the building came under attack, however, the defenders were nowhere in evidence. Once the battle was finally joined, they dispersed the attackers easily, but not before the impression had been created of a deadly danger.
There are reports of panic and uncertainty in the Kremlin on the night of October 3-4 but the upshot of the attack on Ostankino was that Parliament's cause was lost. The armed forces agreed to storm the white house and the resistance of Parliament was crushed.

Gray October

In the West, the events of October 3-4 have been depicted as a struggle between democracy and communist reaction. The verdict of history, however may be more subtle. In fact, there were elements of democracy and communist reaction on both sides of the barbed wire.

In August, 1991, Yeltsin, Rutskoi, and Khasbulatov were allies. Although it is now all but forgotten, it was the Russian Parliament which, following the failed coup, voted in August 1991 to ban the Communist Party. The Parliament also voted by a two-thirds majority to give Yeltsin special powers to carry out economic reforms, ratified the Belovezhsky Agreement dissolving the Soviet Union and approved the radical reform program of Vice-Premier Yegor Gaidar.
From the beginning, however, Yeltsin made no effort to cooperate with the Parliament. He did not lobby legislators or explain his policies and he ignored the Parliament's debates. Nearly seventy deputies who supported him were given jobs in the executive and presidential structures undermining the separation of powers. Yeltsin created new structures to deal with economic reform specifically to avoid the participation of Parliament.

At the same time, the members of Parliament began to be angered by executive branch corruption. Since the president ruled by decree and government agencies ruled by regulations, the members of the executive branch were able to create benefits for selected businesses which had the force of law. The Parliament had to legislate in a more universally applicable manner and, as the months passed, the deputies became outraged at being denied a share of the spoils. It was this situation which turned former allies into members of warring clans fighting not for PRInciple but for power.

On January 2, 1992, Gaidar introduced reforms which made it possible for Russian enterprises to set prices and choose their own suppliers, effectively destroying the centralized planning system. Money supply growth was limited to 10 percent a month in the hope that this would lead to bankruptcies and the beginning of economic restructuring. These reforms led to the first conflicts between the executive branch and the Parliament which, in this sense, had some basis in principle.

In introducing his program, Gaidar predicted that prices would rise three to five times and, in the autumn, begin to fall. The enterprises, however, continued to be state owned and, instead of cutting prices in response to falling demand, they ran up huge debts to each other, waiting to be bailed out by the state. By fall 1992, prices had risen not four to five times but 300 to 400 times wiping out the savings of Soviet citizens and causing the sharpest drop in Russian living standards in modern times.

One night in March 1992, there was a knock on the door of my Moscow apartment. "Anna Sergeievna has died," said a wrinkled old woman when I opened the door, "we're collecting money for her funeral."

Stunned, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a few hundred ruble notes. The inflation had not even left people with enough money to be buried.
In this situation, both Khasbulatov and Rutskoi found themselves excluded from the decision-making process. They began attacking the government for the impoverishment of the people. Yeltsin, for his part, ignored them. They were joined by the directors of military factories who formed a group called the "Civic Union," under the leadership of Arkady Volsky, a former member of the Communist Party Central Committee. By the end of June, Yeltsin, who had been supported by two-thirds of the members of Parliament only a short time earlier, faced a situation in which two thirds of the Parliament now opposed him.
By mid-1992, inter-enterprise debt stood at 3 trillion rubles or half the value of industrial production. Production itself fell more than 20 percent against the same period of the previous year. The government turned its attention to the process of privatization. But this did nothing to lower the tension between the executive branch and the legislative.

What was contemplated was the largest peaceful transfer of property in history. In light of this, the question in both the legislative and executive branches became not whether to carry out privatization but who would carry it out and have the opportunity to distribute buildings, land, factories, and endless privileges and exceptions. At first, both the executive branch and the Parliament appeared to be involved in the process. As the months passed, however it became clear that the Supreme Soviet's control over the state property funds meant nothing more than the right to keep records and this confirmed the deputies in their political opposition.

By the end of 1992, the conflict between the President and the Parliament had become irreconcilable. Khasbulatov began to describe Yeltsin as "mentally ill" and a "drunkard" and projects began to circulate in the executive branch for either changing the constitution or abolishing Parliament. For the most part, popular sympathy was on Yeltsin's side. Khasbulatov has an oleaginous quality that most Russians found disagreeable and they were appalled by a Parliament in which a deputy could vote for 10 or 15 absentees, Khasbulatov interrupted speakers, and persons opposing the majority had to fight their way to the microphone. At the same time, despite the economic hardship, most Russians believe that reform was the only hope for a better future.

At the seventh session of the Congress of Peoples' Deputies, the Parliament tried to reclaim the powers that it had given Yeltsin a year earlier. It fell short of the needed votes, but under pressure from the Parliamentary opposition, Yeltsin agreed to replace Gaidar.

There was a brief lull in January and then the conflict erupted with renewed fury. In March, another session of the Congress was called and it voted to eliminate Yeltsin's power to enact reforms by decree. Yeltsin responded by announcing a "special rule" giving himself the right to nullify acts of Parliament. Yeltsin later withdrew the claim to nullify legislative acts but the Parliamentary forces nonetheless tried to impeach him.

On April 15, a referendum was held on confidence in the government. The voters expressed support for both Yeltsin and his economic policies while calling for the re-election of Parliament. The Parliament, however, refused to recognize the results of the referendum.

On three separate occasions, the Supreme Soviet, which was not even asked to approve the privatization program for 1993, froze privatization, the only part of the reform program that was reporting some progress, and all three times Yeltsin issued decrees which canceled the Parliament's actions.

Finally, in July, Parliament approved a budget with a deficit of 28 trillion rubles or 25 percent of the total national product. The budget in its enacted form was certain to wreck the entire reform process and shortly afterward, Yeltsin decided to finish with the Parliament once and for all.

Force vs. Consensus

The world can be glad that it was Yeltsin who prevailed in the October confrontation and not Rutskoi and Khasbulatov. Had the latter been victorious, power would have quickly passed to the heavily armed communists and fascists who supported them, and Moscow would have been swept by an immediate although possibly short-lived reign of terror.

Yeltsin's victory was essential given the situation which he created, but the crisis which began with Yeltsin's decree dissolving the Parliament, did not work to the long term benefit of Russia.

The most important result of the October events was the loss of the possibility to lay the basis for an enduring constitution and with it, the rule of law.
It is, of course, true that the old constitution was absolutely inadequate. What is often disregarded, however, is that the President and the Parliament had agreed to abide by it, and the only alternative to it was rule by force.

Work on a new Russian constitution began in 1990 when a constitutional commission of the Russian Supreme Soviet was formed under the chairmanship of Yeltsin. In May of this year, however, Yeltsin convened a constitutional assembly, which was supposed to contain representatives of the executive and legislative branches, to work out an alternative draft.

In July, a project for a new constitution was released by the assembly and included a sharp expansion of the role of the president. With the abolition by Yeltsin of the Supreme Soviet, however, the procedure for accepting a new constitution was changed. Not only was one of the parties to the constitutional assembly unceremoniously eliminated, but in keeping with the Yeltsin decree of October 15, so was a constituent assembly which should have produced a final draft.
A month before the elections, the new constitution had still not been published, leaving no time for voters to study its contents, and a rule was established by Yeltsin whereby only 25 percent of all eligible voters had to vote yes in the referendum for the constitution to become the new basic law.

Unsurprisingly, the final draft of the constitution minimizes the possibility of a new Parliamentary challenge to Yeltsin. Yeltsin is free to appoint his own ministers, with the exception of the prime minister who must be confirmed by the Parliament. He has control over the budget, and nominates the director of the central bank and the justices of the constitutional court. He has the power to dissolve Parliament and to issue decrees. No law takes effect without his signature and a presidential veto can only be overridden by a vote of two-thirds of both houses, a near impossibility in what is expected to be a fractionated Parliament.
This constitution, however, is unlikely to have legitimacy, which is a serious shortcoming in light of Russia's massive social problems. In a situation where the struggle for political power has spread to every locality in the country and organized mafias control everything from the sale of liquor in street kiosks to the trade in body parts for transplants and research in the Moscow morgues, what is needed is the uniform enforcement of a coherent body of enacted law. This, however, is nearly impossible without general recognition of the legitimacy of society's basic law.

Besides undermining the rule of law, the October events greatly increased the political weight in Russia of the armed forces. In the previous two years, the army did not aspire to political power because of its lack of political experience and the desperate material condition of the army after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Having decided the struggle for political power in October, however, the army may in the future become an independent political force.

After the crushing of the Parliamentary resistance, the army received the principal role in deciding on Russia's new military doctrine which provides a basis for unilateral Russian intervention in the former Soviet republics, "the near abroad." The doctrine, all but a small part of which was published on November 17, identifies as an external threat to Russia, the suppression of the "rights" and "legitimate interests" of Russian citizens living abroad. There are more than 25 million Russians living in 14 former Soviet republics who are candidates for Russian protection under this clause and, as interwar European experience demonstrates, the attempt of an external power to guarantee the security of its co-nationals in another state immediately undermines their position in the nation in which they are citizens.

In fact, a pattern of intervention by the Russian army in the former republics has existed for some time. Russian army units have intervened in Georgia, Moldova, and Tadjikistan and this tendency can be expected to increase. The loosening of political control over the army, in turn, is very dangerous. The result of a crisis provoked by an activist military policy in the near abroad could easily be a shift in the support of the army to fascist and nationalist forces in Russia itself.

As the victory of the Russian President over the Russian Parliament recedes into history, it may seem that Yeltsin has simply stabilized his position following a necessary but regrettable loss of life. Such victories, however, do not come free. Yeltsin triumphed over Rutskoi and Khasbulatov but in doing so, he strengthened the Russian tradition of contempt for compromise and reliance on force which in the long run can only be antithetical to the progress of all democratic forces.

The problem facing anyone who wants a better future for Russia is how to restructure the economy without provoking massive social unrest. The complicated nature of this problem led the two sides to take opposite positions, but it was the struggle for power and the lust for a share of the spoils that transformed political disagreement into outright war.

What Russia needs is a civil consensus, the importance of which actually transcends the value of any particular economic policy. Without social peace, reform policies which generate mass unemployment cannot be successful and even policies that reinforce industry at the price of a gradual economic decline will inspire unrest.

With social peace and a political consensus, Russia may be able to weather the economic crisis which lies ahead of her, but social peace is only possible if there is a willingness on the part of leaders to seek compromise with all elements of society. It was this possibility which was too lightly squandered in the life and death struggle between the President and the former legislative branch.

During the recent crisis, Yeltsin had no better friend than the United States. Our support for him, even when he acted illegally, was timely and emphatic. Did it really make sense, however, for us to identify so closely with the fate of one man?

Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in a speech before the Academy of the National Economy in Moscow, October 23, quoted the well-known (in Russia)lines of the Russian poet, Fyodor Tyutchev "Russia is understood not by the mind...In Russia one can only believe." Christopher then continued, "We believe that the new Russia...will prevail. And we believe the new generation of democrats here today will seize the opportunities and secure the gains made possible by reform."

It is possible to share Christopher's sentiments and still point out that faith in Russia's capacity and economic reform is not the kind of "belief" that Tyutchev had in mind. When Tyutchev said it was necessary to believe in Russia he meant believe in Russia's unique spiritual mission and its duty to save the whole world. This is the significance of the line, "Russia is understood not by the mind..."

In evaluating Yeltsin, as in reading Tyutchev, it is important to understand the context of Russian society. Russia is not the United States where it is possible to choose sides secure in the knowledge of the existence of a stable democratic context. In Russia, the psychological structure of religious-based morality was destroyed. She can best be helped not by uncritical support of one or another Russian political figure but with humanitarian aid and the careful articulation of transcendent democratic principles. The failure to think in terms of transcendent principles characterizes our policy toward Russia and is the much discussed "missing element" in post-Cold War American foreign policy as a whole.

To return to Tyutchev, the poet writes, "she [Russia] has a special stature of her own." Because of the truth of Tyutchev's vision, we must deal with Russia, not as a Eurasian version of the United States, but as a nation emerging from seventy years of atheism and forced collectivism and, by grasping the intellectual challenge presented by a unique country, both honor ourselves and treat her with deserved respect.

Essay Types: Essay