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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Eight Years After A Watershed

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 4 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Eight years after former Russian President Boris Yeltsin used force to disperse a parliament in open revolt against his authority, Russians remain both deeply divided about who was in the right during that conflict and ambivalent about its consequences for their country.

On 23 September 1993, Yeltsin announced that he was dismissing the Russian Supreme Soviet (as it was then known) and calling new elections. He took that action because the communist-dominated legislature increasingly was blocking his efforts at reform. In response, the Supreme Soviet leadership declared his actions illegal and announced that Yeltsin was no longer president and they were in charge.

Armed groups supportive of the Supreme Soviet then took up positions in defense of the parliament's headquarters at the Moscow White House and on 3 October attempted to seize control of the Ostankino broadcasting center in order to take control of Russian radio and television.

In response, Yeltsin called in the security forces and the army, ordered the shelling of the White House and ultimately arrested many of those who had risen against him.

In the wake of the conflict which left the White House charred, Yeltsin rammed through a new constitution which gave him and his successors greatly enhanced powers relative to the country's parliament and government.

Because of this complicated history and because the events of October 1993 continue to cast a shadow on Russia to this day, Russians were then and remain now divided as to whether Yeltsin's actions represented the triumph of democracy as his supporters in that country and abroad maintained or whether it represented the burial of democracy as his opponents have insisted.

This week, on the eighth anniversary of these events, the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion released a poll that shows that some 31 percent of Russians blame Yeltsin for what happened, while 16 percent blame the leaders of the Supreme Soviet. The poll also indicated that only one Russian in four now believes that Yeltsin's use of armed force against the parliament at that time was justified, with 47.4 percent saying that no force should have been used.

Yeltsin's defenders argued then and argue now that the Russian president had no choice, that the parliament was in open revolt, and that he owed it to the country and to the cause of democratic reform to take action against the parliament. And they suggest that his actions were in fact a defense of democracy rather than an attack on it. Indeed, they would argue that there would have been no public opinion polls now had the communists in the Supreme Soviet won eight years ago.

But his opponents claimed then and claim now that Yeltsin behaved in an imperious fashion, that his use of force in fact threatened democracy, and that both he and Russia would have been better off if he had worked with the parliament rather than taken the actions which precipitated these events. And they suggest that Yeltsin's own increasing isolation and imperiousness were set in train by his role in October 1993.

This debate, which shows little sign of lessening with time, has been complicated in the last several years by the fact that the very powers which current President Vladimir Putin has wielded with such confidence in many cases exist only because of the October 1993 events and the new constitution which was adopted at the end of that year. And as a result, these historical assessments are increasingly intertwined with debates about political arrangements in Russia now.

The clash between Yeltsin and the Russian parliament eight years ago thus represents not only a watershed where the direction of Russia's development appeared to have changed course but also an event that Russians and others seem fated to consider one of the "accursed questions" that have plagued so much of Russian history.