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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Way It Was

John Harrison

uring 1993 Russian`s incomes started to rise against inflation, a little. Food and consumer products began to appear in the shopssand eternal queuing became a thing of the past. The standart of living, in monetary terms at least, improved. Politically the country was on a huge roller coaster which frieghtened the world and filled those Russians not directly involved with disgust. Russia`s new leaders were faced with the impossible task of changing the course of a country using democratic methods when parliamentarians were still used to the autocratic command system. Yeltsin himself was not much of negotiator. If in 1991 events led to the introduction of a more democratic Russian leadership, then 1993 was the year in which the unreformed machinery of state fought long and hard for survival. It eventually surrendered but not without shells being fired directly into Moscow’s White House in October.

On one side of Russia’s political splitpersonality were Westernising, democrats -- President Yeltsin, Yegor Gaidar, Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais, who headed the privatisation programmes, the mayors of Moscow and St. Petersburg, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev and others. On the other side were powerful groups around Vice- President Rutskoi and Ruslan Khasbulatov, who was Speaker and Chairman of the Congress of People’s Deputies. Public opinion polls showed abysmally low ratings for the conservative (nondemocratic) majority of the Congress. The power ministries tried hard to retain their neutrality.

Hardliners, relishing their success at the seventh Congress of People’s Deputies in December 1992, when Prime Minister Gaidar was replaced by Viktor Chernomyrdin, organised a four-day eighth Extraordinary Congress of People’s Deputies from March 10-13. The number one goal was to cancel the scheduled April referendum, which would give Yeltsin a chance to hold parliamentary elections, move towards the establishment of a presidential republic and ask the population whether they favoured private ownership of land. The crisis deepened.

On its third day, Yeltsin was stripped of the emergency powers that the fifth Congress had granted him in November 1991. To all intents and purposes, Yeltsin`s ability to operate without the approval of Parliament, was now severely limited, which would have been fine in a mature democracy but not much use in Russia in 1993. On March 13, the April referendum was cancelled by a vote of 422-286. The longer such a poll could be put off, the better it was for Khasbulatov, as with every day of political paralysis, Yeltsin’s charisma faded.

On the same day the Congress moved to assert control over the media and requested the Supreme Soviet to evaluate the work of Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev and deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais. As Galina Starovoitova said, the March congress was “a constitutional coup, a silent creeping coup, which has de facto deprived the President of power”.

Outside parliament’s gates not everybody watched apathetically. Yegor Gaidar’s Party, Democratic Russia, rallied 20,000 Muscovites at St. Basil’s Cathedral in the President’s support. Kuzbass miners assailed the Congress for “ignoring the will of the people” as manifest by 2.5 million signatures that had been gathered in favour of a referendum on the private ownership of land. The new Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin turned out to be a Yeltsin loyalist, which in 1993 simply meant he didn’t join the fight against his boss. Chernomyrdin emphasised “strong presidential power that is a guarantor of reforms”. Chernomyrdin, former chief of Gazprom, a communist turned capitalist, continued to implement Gaidar’s reform programme and accepted Gaidar’s associate Boris Fedorov as Minister of Finance. The cabinet was compelled, at Yeltsin’s command, to adhere to Chubais’s programme of privatization.

Eventually realising that a Russia with Yeltsin would be considerably better for their interests than what the opposition had to offer, Western countries, thanks to the newly-elected Bill Clinton, now came charging forward with an aid programme of billions of dollars. Even the IMF changed its tune but this was all rather late.

Russian regional bosses, flushed with a growing sense of importance, showed increasing disgust in the struggle occurring in the Congress. One deputy in the autonomous republic of Kalmykia was quoted as saying that the country’s 88 republics, oblasts and krais “will simply go their own way if Moscow cannot end their debilitating feud”. As head of the legislature, Ruslan Khasbulatov stood at the hub of a network of soviets or councils, which extended from Moscow to the smallest village; the same network which gave the USSR its name and which theoretically engaged the politicians with the people. Khasbulatov had no qualms about engaging this network against his own president, helping to make the country un-manageable.

Exceeding his constitutional powers, on March 20th Yeltsin announced on national television that he had signed a decree introducing “special rule,” a term that was carefully left undefined but meant that parliament would no longer be able to obstruct his work. The Supreme Soviet convened immediately to discuss impeachment and two days later the Constitutional Court declared Yeltsin’s decree had violated the constitution. The start of impeachment proceedings against Yeltsin only served to stir patriotic feelings of loyalty to a leader clearly in trouble and his popularity ratings soared. On March 21, Yeltsin’s mother died and this served to increase public sympathy. Yeltsin himself, a fighter who came out best in a struggle, was spurred on by the results of polls which showed mass disapproval of the activities of yet another emergency Congress held on March 26-29.

On March 28, 617 deputies voted in favour of Yeltsin’s impeachment, narrowly missing the 689 needed for the initiative to pass. A huge and noisy crowd of 60,000 had been organised by Democratic Russia outside on the street and it may be that they influenced a few of the voters’ minds. The April 25 referendum was reinstated. Things seemed to be going Yeltsin’s way until Vice President Rutskoi on April 25th made a speech to the Supreme Soviet in which he accused a number of high ranking government figures of large-scale corruption. Emotionally, he claimed possession of eleven suitcases full of compromising material and his slur campaign went a long way to neutralise Yeltsin’s political gains in the April referendum.

During the referendum on April 25, 58% of Russians showed their support for Yeltsin. More than two thirds – 67.2% -- were in favour of early elections to a new parliament, while slightly less than half supported early elections for the Russian presidency. Voicing public opinion, Mikhail Poltoranin, then head of the Russian Federal Information Agency, said that the “Congress of People’s Deputies should dissolve itself and Khasbulatov and Rutskoi should also do the honourable thing and resign”. Winning popular support, however, did not necessarily mean that the population wanted to continue down the Westernising road, something that Yeltsin was to discover before the year was out.

On April 29th, the draft of a new constitution to replace the discredited Brezhnev- era basic law was released to the press. Like the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic which gave President Charles De Gaulle broad powers such as the right to dissolve parliament and to circumnavigate the French National Assembly through the vehicle of referenda, this new Russian constitution would give Yeltsin tremendous powers. Russian regional bosses joined parliament in the opposition; after all, their rights and privileges would come under attack as well as those of Russia’s parliamentarians. Five working groups were organised to thrash out the final details but the President’s hopes were dashed when in August provincial leaders rejected the final draft. Yeltsin’s answer was to open a session of the new Federation Council which was to become the upper chamber under the new constitution, as if it had already been adopted. The Council was to be appointed by the president. Few of the provincial representatives signed the founding documents while a number of others refused to participate.

On May 1st the streets of Moscow turned the colour of blood, when a boisterous crowd of between 5000 and 7000 gathered with red flags in front of the massive statue of Lenin in Moscow’s October Square, summoned by the National Salvation Front, the Workers’ Moscow movement and the Russian Communist Party. Among the honoured guests were GKChP leaders Kryuchkov, Yanaev, Lukanov, Baklanov and Shenin, all recently released from prison. Violence broke out when the demonstrators attempted to leave their approved parade route and they came face to face with a wall of police and OMON. Altogether 374 demonstrators and 205 policemen were injured. One OMON sergeant, Vladimir Tolokneev, later died of his injures.

On September 18th, Yeltsin took the kid gloves off and reappointed Yegor Gaidar as First deputy Prime Minister. By this time, he had formulated a plan of disposing of the Supreme Soviet once and for all. He planned to simply lock the Supreme Soviet deputies out of the White House.

On the evening of September 21, Yeltsin announced that he had signed presidential decree No. 1400, whereby he dissolved both houses of parliament and fixed new parliamentary elections for December 12. Rutskoi and Khasbulatov were savvy to Yelstin’s plan and had already encamped themselves inside the White house along with hundreds of Supreme Soviet deputies. Vice President Rutskoi was promptly appointed Acting President of Russia and an emergency 10th Congress of People’s deputies was convened. The Constitutional Court ruled Yeltsin’s decree unconstitutional, thereby creating grounds for removing him from the Presidency. Acting President Rutskoi appointed his own “ministers”. Viktor Barrannikov was appointed security minister and Vladislav Achalov defense minister. It seemed not to have occured to Rutskoi that these appointments would have the effect of throwing the real ministers into Yeltsin’s arms. Yeltsin ordered his Defense Minister Grachev, hero of the August 1991 coup, to lay siege to the same building that a little over two years ago he had heroically defended.

A poll taken by VTsIOM throughout the Russian republic during the period September 24-28 found that 44% of urban dwellers supported the president and 15% were in favour of Rutskoi, Khasbulatov and the Supreme Soviet. 32% were undecided. People thought, perhaps mistakenly, that backing Yeltsin would bring about a crack-down on corruption. Amazing revelations were printed in the press, such as the fact that at least onethird of oil deliveries by Russia to Ukraine in 1992 had been illegally diverted.

Meanwhile, Rutskoi and the Supreme Soviet made a series of attempts to split the military and the police and bring the regions over to their side. The military and police, having learnt from 1991, stuck to their “wait and see” policy. Union leaders supported the Supreme Soviet whilst rank and file members tended either to support Yeltsin or no one. Regional bosses backed Rutskoi.

Following an unsuccessful attempt by parliament to take over the communications centre of the CIS on Leningradsky Prospect, the White House was cordoned off by police and OMON. As the impasse continued, Constitutional Court chairman Valery Zorkin retracted his earlier assertion that Yeltsin should be impeached and began to press for the adoption of a so-called “zero-zero” option which would set the clock back to the state of the game before Yeltsin issued decree 1400. The potential for serious violence was significant. The Parliamentary Guard had access to 1,600 automatic weapons, over 2000 pistols, 20 machine guns and several grenade launchers. More weapons were being smuggled into the White House daily through a labyrinth of underground tunnels underneath the building. General Rutskoi had three battalions of Moscow reservists, about 100 spteznaz soldiers and various forces from groups as different as the Cossacks to the neo-Nazi stormtroopers of Aleksnder Barkashov at his disposal.

On the afternoon of October 3rd, a combined crowd of between 5,000 and 10,000 pro-Supreme Soviet demonstrators broke through a heavy police cordon and swarmed up to the White House. Rutskoi, convinced that victory was close at hand, came out on a balcony and shouted: “We have won! Thank you, dear Muscovites!” He instructed the crowd to form up detachments and seize the Mayor’s office, then move on to Ostankino television broadcasting centre. An intoxicated mob burst into the nearby mayor’s office and the adjacent MIR hotel which was at that time the temporary police headquarters. At 5pm a detachment set off for Ostankino. It seemed briefly that a Bolshevik-style revolution was unfolding, with the fate of a nuclear-armed giant with 150 million people being decided by a few thousand people.

Nobody stopped to ask why the demonstrators had been let through to the White House, and why vehicles had been left by fleeing police with their keys in them. Just what a heavily armed mob needed to travel north through Moscow to the Ostankino TV centre, where a detachment of the Vityaz unit, a semisecret section of the Dzerzhinsky Division whose ‘normal job was to suppress prison mutinies or race riots in Central Asia, without too many questions being asked’ (An Empire’s new Clothes, Bruce Clark) was waiting for them. The result was a killing field where 60 rebels, passers- by and journalists lost their lives. If the rebels had set off for the unguarded Kremlin, that would have been a different matter, but they didn’t, and one can only presume that Yeltsin had all the sophistication of Russian intelligence services at his disposal to inform him of this. The rebels did, however, take control of several other key buildings in Moscow, including the ITAR-TASS building.

All of this enabled Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin to persuade the military to abandon its stance of neutrality and agree to a phased storming of the White House the following morning. We will never know at what price the military’s agreement came. A gaping hole was blasted in the White House before Rutskoi, Khasbulatov and their supporters would concede.

Dvoevlastie or dual power ended abruptly. Valery Zorkin, chairman of the Constitutional Court, resigned as chief justice several days after the taking of the White House. Yeltsin moved quickly against the regions. The existing soviets of all levels were disbanded, and the status of the autonomous republics were downgraded in the new constitution.

It seemed as though Yeltsin had scored the ultimate victory. However the electorate was somewhat shocked by the methods that Yeltsin used to rout his opponents. Rumours circulated around Moscow that thousands and not hundreds of people had been killed inside the White House as result of the shelling and consequent storming of the building. Yeltsin showed an over keen attitude to manipulate the press by making sure that Gaidar’s Russia’s choice was given more air time than any other party, and any criticism to the Draft Constitution was banned on air.

The four democratic parties that competed in the December elections for the State Duma, the new lower house, fared far worse than was expected, whilst Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party took 66 seats, the bornagain Communist Party took 62, and the Agrarians took 49. Yegor Gaidar’s “Russia’s Choice” took 103 seats, and could easily be outvoted.

Many believed the results were a result of Yeltsin’s heavy handedness, but the dissatisfaction went deeper than that. Although Gaidar’s reforms were beginning to work, many thought they had failed. But things were only getting better in Moscow. Whole sections of the economy such as agriculture were as yet unreformed and dependant on dwindling state subsidies. Ministers held back from implementing the long awaited land reform law and there were persistent constraints upon entrepreneurial activity. The rule of law was very arbitrary and businessmen did not have a predictable environment to operate in. The country appeared to be rudderless and drifting.

As Russians increasingly rejected their Soviet identity, they sought to return to national roots. Euroasian politics that had been espoused by writers such as Solzhenitsyn, and before him by Lev Gumilyov became more appealing. A wide spectrum of opposition parties espoused policies that were at least partly Euroasian. Nobody was actually quite sure what Gumilyov’s ethnos really was but there was a general assumption that Orthodox Russia had more in common with the traditional authoritative values of Central Asia than the individualistic values of the humanist West. Coupled to all this was anger at the separatist sentiment in the non-Russian regions and a sinking feeling that Russia had ceased to be a great power. Furthermore, many Russians were concerned for their fellow co-ethnics in the “near abroad”.

Gaidar was not a very good communicator. His pudgy face had never endeared itself to most voters and his language was as incomprehensible as ever. Zhirinovsky appeared dynamic and could speak the language of the man and woman in the street. Zyuganov was an unprepossessing speaker, yet the communists offered somewhere to go if you felt dis-inherited by Russia’s casting off of its Soviet identity.

For Yeltsin, the December elections offered mixed results. Communists and neo-fascists would henceforth enjoy strong representation in the State Duma, but the upper chamber, the Federation Council, promised to be more tractable. After 58% of the population endorsed the new constitution, Yeltsin once again had virtually unrestricted authority to appoint his prime minister, to prorogue parliament and rule by decree.

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