In the midst of a significant American political crisis, it is easy to forget that twenty years ago this week, Russia’s former president Boris Yeltsin shelled Moscow’s White House—where the country’s parliament met at that time—in a considerably more dramatic and probably more consequential executive-legislative conflict than today’s in Washington. Yet Americans would do well to remember the events that led to the October 1993 crisis.
Unfortunately, few still appear to recall October 3 and 4. Even The Washington Post seems to have forgotten; despite its current editorial-page editor’s service as Moscow bureau chief at that time, the paper’s timeline of “Yeltsin’s Reforms and Economic Turmoil” skips directly from Yeltsin’s September 21 decree disbanding the Supreme Soviet to a December vote on the country’s new constitution without any mention of the minor detail that Russia’s president ordered troops to assault the parliament building and arrest the body’s speaker as well as his own vice president.
The origins of the crisis were in 1992, when Yeltsin’s early attempts at radical economic reform devastated Russian society. Policies described as shock therapy for the Russian economy were quickly characterized as “all shock and no therapy” and, predictably, provoked widespread public and political opposition, including in the Supreme Soviet and the Congress of Peoples’ Deputies, a super-parliament that met only a few times per year. When the two bodies refused to endorse key reforms, Yeltsin called for a national referendum in April 1993 and began to rule by decree.
While Yeltsin won majorities expressing confidence in his leadership, supporting reform, and calling for new parliamentary elections, opposition to reform remained high—45% voted against it in the referendum. No less important, a majority favored early presidential elections, meaning that Russia’s voters wanted not only a new parliament, but a chance at a new president and a clean political slate to move beyond the confrontation between Yeltsin and conservative legislators.
Russia’s president was not interested in the latter message, however, and pressed ahead in his conflict with the Supreme Soviet and government by diktat—with the full support of the Clinton administration. (And despite private advice from Richard Nixon, who encouraged Yeltsin to seek a compromise with the parliament in March 1993, only to be told by the Russian leader that U.S. officials were counseling the exact opposite.) When Yeltsin eventually dissolved the parliament in frustration in September, President Bill Clinton stated explicitly that “President Yeltsin has made his choice, and I support him fully.” Ambassador-at-Large for the former Soviet Union Strobe Talbott referred to Yeltsin’s dissolution of parliament as a “noisy squabble.” With this support, Yeltsin sent in the tanks two weeks later, on October 4, and swept the Supreme Soviet into the dustbin of history. It was surely noisy, but rather more than a squabble.
From today’s vantage point, the events of October 1993 had profound consequences. First, Yeltsin’s unconstitutional dissolution of the parliament (Yeltsin himself acknowledged that he violated the constitution, and the constitutional court determined the same)—and his use of force to make it stick—convinced many Russians that Yeltsin was no democrat. The assault on Russia’s White House starkly demonstrated the authoritarian instincts that shaped without entirely defining his remaining years in office. Notably, by 2003 only 18% of Russians surveyed considered Yeltsin’s 1993 victory to have been good for Russia. Nevertheless, surprisingly few Americans saw Yeltsin or his actions this way; most accepted the canard of the “Soviet-era parliament” and ignored the fact that Russia’s president was also a Soviet-era official selected in a Soviet-era election.
Second, October 1993 dramatically increased Yeltsin’s reliance on Russia’s security services both as a day-to-day political instrument and as a pillar of his rule. This led to a wave of promotions, increasing budgets, and efforts to recruit loyal supporters with backgrounds in security and intelligence agencies—including a deputy of Yeltsin’s close ally Anatoly Sobchak, a former KGB lieutenant colonel named Vladimir Putin. Putin came to Moscow in 1996 to lead a Kremlin property agency and then became head of the Federal Security Service two years later. Only two years after that, Yeltsin resigned and appointed him acting president.
But Putin could not have led Russia in the manner that he has without the third consequence of Yeltsin’s October revolution—a new Russian constitution that radically altered the balance of power between the country’s president and its parliament, greatly empowering the presidency and rendering the new State Duma largely ineffective, particularly in an environment of managed elections that produced increasingly reliable majorities as time went by. Moreover, though the constitution won approval in a December 12 referendum, election experts soon called the balloting into question. They alleged that while the constitution won majority support, turnout was too low to meet the required minimum for valid voting. Subsequent academic statistical analyses have found clear indications of fraud in voting patterns that depart considerably from Russia’s prior experience. And even as Yeltsin established the legal framework for a strong presidency, his ineffective and sporadic led many Russians to crave it.
While these three forces have powerfully influenced Russia’s evolution, the fourth outcome of October 1993 has been perhaps the most damaging to U.S. foreign policy and U.S.-Russian relations. Tragically, the Clinton Administration’s support for Yeltsin’s clear violation of Russia’s constitution and his ill-conceived reforms persuaded a large share of Russians that the United States valued friendly and accommodating leadership in Russia above Russia’s democracy, not to mention the well-being of its citizens. It is upon this foundation of perceived U.S. cynicism that today’s Russian anti-Americanism has grown and flourished—along with profound skepticism of U.S. democracy promotion elsewhere that has fueled Moscow’s opposition to U.S. policy in much of the Middle East and Central Asia.
The minimal degree to which American policy-makers and pundits have learned the lessons of October 1993 twenty years later have been on vivid display in the Middle East, most recently in Egypt, where the Obama Administration took a similarly tolerant view of the unconstitutional ouster of the country’s president while simultaneously claiming to support democracy. Coming as it did after earlier missteps dealing with both long-time ally Hosni Mubarak and his successor Mohammed Morsi, this means that the United States has successfully alienated all sides in one of the region’s most important nations.
Political and social transitions like those in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Egypt today are inherently complex, unpredictable, fragile, and reversible. Taking into account that they are also not subject to U.S. control, our persistent efforts to intervene in these processes make no sense. These attempts are particularly damaging when we simultaneously claim that we want the citizens of the country in question to decide their own future; we assert faith in democracy and the popular will, but don’t show that we have sufficient faith to allow events to unfold. When we then inject ourselves into challenging situations without sufficient skill or determination to produce the outcomes we prefer, we assume partial responsibility for what happens—in both practical and moral terms.
Worst of all, however, is the utter failure of America’s political leaders—in both parties—to lead by example in the conduct of our own democracy. While the not-quite-shutdown of the federal government is indeed more a “noisy squabble” than a crisis, continuing vicious disputes that preclude effective governance are a poor advertisement for democracy or for U.S. international leadership. Hopefully it won’t take another twenty years to learn that.
Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Center for the National Interest and associate publisher of The National Interest . He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.