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Russia: Today Marks Third Anniversary Of Moscow Rebellion

  • Stephanie Baker

Moscow, 4 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Exactly three years ago today, a violent confrontation between rebel parliamentarians and President Boris Yeltsin occurred that profoundly affected Russia's politics and its government. But Russians still seem divided over the actual meaning of these events.

For many, Yeltsin had no choice but to order the assault on the Russian parliament building -- the White House -- on October 4, 1993. Parliamentary hard-liners, led by Vice President Alexander Rutskoi and Parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, had holed themselves up in the building, demanded Yeltsin's resignation and called on the army to rally to their side.

Yeltsin's decision is said to have been precipitated by attacks mounted by the rebel forces, which had stormed the Ostankino television center the day before and called for a siege of the Kremlin. The use of force is said to have been needed to halt the violence and prevent a hard-line coup.

But others still contend that it was the president who started the crisis by ordering the legislature dissolved two weeks before in a bid to end the gridlock over reforms. For them, the hard-line legislators were merely defending the constitution against a power-hungry president bent on authoritarian rule.

For his part, Yeltsin has said that the Soviet-era parliament became an obstacle to reforms and that a new constitution was needed to clearly define the relationship between the legislative and executive branches of government.

In the end, Yeltsin won. Rutskoi, Khasbulatov and their entourage surrendered. Two months later, on December 12, Russians went to the polls to approve through a referendum a new constitution, which vastly expanded the president's powers. Voters also elected a new parliament, which, although still dominated by Yeltsin's opponents, lost many of its prerogatives.

This week, small protests have been held in Moscow to commemorate those who died in the clashes. Approximately 150 people died during the strife on October 3-4, but supporters of the revolt maintain the number of deaths was much higher. Some demonstrators have demanded that Yeltsin stand trial for the killing.

Reflecting on those events today, Alexander Rutskoi says he regrets starting the revolt against Yeltsin. In an interview with RFE/RL, Rutskoi admitted he had made mistakes.

"If I had known how many people would die, if I had known the price of the revolt, I probably would have given up," he said.

But Rutskoi remains defiant in his criticism of Yeltsin's record since October 1993. In his opinion, Yeltsin has been exercising unlimited powers and has presided over what he called "political and economic lawlessness."

And Rutskoi has found a current grievance in the refusal of the authorities to register him as a candidate in upcoming gubernatorial elections in the southern oblast of Kursk. The elections are scheduled for October 20.

According to electoral rules, candidates are required to live in their electoral districts for at least one year before the poll. The electoral commission ruled that Rutskoi is not eligible because he has been living in Moscow for the past year. But Rutskoi maintains the refusal to register him is a direct result of the October 1993 events and is symptomatic of a country where "laws are not respected."

While Rutskoi sees the attack on the White House as the beginning of semi-authoritarian rule, others consider it as a turning point in Russia's efforts to establish a democracy.

Sergei Markov, a Moscow-based analyst for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the main legacy of those events was the creation of a workable constitution that can guide the country through times of trouble. He told RFE/RL that the use of force finally resolved "the contradictions in the political system." He says the main problem with the previous constitution, dating to the Brezhnev era, was that it did not adequately address the relationship between the president and the parliament.

Markov describes the clash of three years ago as primarily a conflict between two competing political institutions. He says the conflict was solved with the creation of a powerful president capable of maintaining stability.

At the time, many observers argued that Yeltsin's decision to use the military against the parliament would make the country "beholden" to the army. But Pavel Felgengauer, defense correspondent for the daily newspaper "Sevodnya," disagrees. In his words: "The army didn't get more power, Yeltsin did."

But Felgengauer also says the use of the army in the attack against the parliament may have made it subsequently easier for the Moscow leaders to send troops to Chechnya.

"Once you begin to use force to solve political problems at home, you tend to use it again," said Felgengauer.

(Grigory Krichevsky interviewed Alexander Rutskoi for this report).