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Russia: Ripples Of October 1993 Still Felt 10 Years On

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Ten years ago, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin abolished the Russian Supreme Soviet, the late Soviet-era parliament that had proved a stubborn roadblock to Yeltsin's attempts at reform. The showdown that ensued ended in bloodshed, with Yeltsin ordering the army to storm the White House parliamentary building to remove insurgent deputies protesting the ouster. Since then, the events of October 1993 have largely faded from public memory. But the storming of the White House has left a deep impression on Russia's political life to this day.

Moscow, 2 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Critics call it the "October coup" -- the incident that sent Russia into a tailspin of non-democratic governance that has resulted in a decade of wars, nepotism, and corruption.

Supporters, on the other hand, primly refer to it as the "October events," perhaps for lack of a better way to explain how a presidential order to storm parliament could evolve into a key moment in the birth of Russian democracy: the adoption of the country's new constitution. But observers from both sides of the barricades agree that the actions of September and early October 1993 forged Russia as it is today.

Veronika Koutsyllo was one of the few journalists inside the White House during the two-week siege staged by mainly Communist and nationalist members of the Russian Supreme Soviet, or parliament, which Yeltsin had suspended as a Soviet-era relic.

Today she says Yeltsin's decision to storm the building shattered her illusions that the president was building a peaceful road to reform: "It was the end of our romance with the authorities, when we -- the journalists, the reformers, Yeltsin -- were all one. We were building something together. And then came the realization that the powers and the journalists should be distinct, It seems to me that it was then, in 1993, that the powers became powerful."

Yeltsin had sought for months to replace the Soviet Constitution and the Russian Supreme Soviet, the parliament elected in the dying days of the Soviet Union. Finally, on 21 September, he issued a decree suspending the parliamentary body. Outraged by the move, the insurgent deputies -- together with Russian Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi -- denounced Yeltsin and barricaded themselves inside the parliament building. Negotiations to resolve the conflict proved fruitless, and anti-Kremlin demonstrations quickly grew in force. On 3 October, Yeltsin ordered the army to storm the White House, which was ultimately recaptured following a night of fighting. In another part of Moscow, a second battle was fought for control over the Ostankino television tower.

The number of people killed in the clashes is still a matter of debate -- official estimates stand at around 150, but Yeltsin's opponents claim as many as 2,000 people may have died. No political leaders were killed in the fighting -- the victims were largely protesters, journalists, and curious onlookers caught up in the violence.

Yeltsin spent the next two months putting his political plans into action. The new Russian federal constitution was passed by referendum in December 1993, and a new parliament -- the Federal Assembly, comprising the Federation Council (upper house) and State Duma (lower house) -- was elected. The new constitution -- which in word ensures basic human rights and liberties like private property -- was hailed by its supporters as a key step in Russia's democratic transition. But critics say the text has left the country with a system where presidential powers are virtually unchecked.

French political scientist Jean-Rober Raviot says Yeltsin suspended the Russian Supreme Soviet in order to push through his constitutional draft. In this way, he says, the events of October 1993 represented a coup d'etat: "The presidential institution really imposed itself only after then. We saw this presidential 'Caesarism' created by October 1993 -- the need to legitimate oneself through use of force -- come back in 1999, when [Vladimir] Putin was not yet president, with [the war] in Chechnya."

Some argue that the current formula of pitting a strong executive against a relatively weak parliament helped Russia break away more quickly from its Soviet roots. Sergei Filatov served as Yeltsin's presidential chief of staff from 1993-96. He says he regrets that "decisions on using force had to be made too quickly" in October 1993.

But Filatev says Russia's developing market economy is a positive legacy of that time: "I think that reforms, as we made them, would not have happened [without the events of October 1993]. They wouldn't have happened because there would have been attempts to maintain a parliamentary republic -- something for which Russia was unprepared, and which would have stunted [democratic] reforms."

That argument falls flat with some critics. Duma Deputy Vyacheslav Igrunov says Russia would have evolved as a fairer, more democratic society if parliament had been given a better opportunity to counterbalance Kremlin policy: "All this is the legacy of interrupting an evolutionary process. The storming of the White House and the decree [suspending the Supreme Soviet] predetermined the half-democratic nature of our society today."

Dmitrii Furman was one of Russia's most respected journalistic voices throughout the 1990s. In an editorial published in this week's "Moskovskiye novosti," he writes that by using force in 1993, Yeltsin condemned himself to life in jail should he ever lose his connection to the ruling powers. "Yeltsin had to create a presidential system that is hereditary and offers no alternatives," Furman writes. In the two days of fighting, he adds, Yeltsin and his supporters sacrificed a basic principle of democracy: freedom of choice and a balance of powers.

As a result, Yeltsin's camp has spared no effort to stay on top. Furman says the rise of the oligarchs, the wars in Chechnya and the rise of current President Putin can all be credited to the political regime created by Yeltsin after October 1993.

Journalist Veronika Koutsyllo disagrees: "I can't rid myself of the idea that it all could have been a lot worse. Yeltsin could have behaved worse after he won and turn into a real dictator, but he didn't do that."

Russia's current political configuration is also in part a result of the 1993 events. Vladimir Zhirinovskii's Liberal Democratic Party was quickly set up by the Kremlin to take advantage of the protest vote -- those disgusted by the October events but unwilling to embrace the Communists.

Ironically, it is Russia's democrats that have perhaps suffered the most. The violence of October 1993, waged in the name of democracy, may have contributed to the wariness many Russians still feel today regarding the country's democratic politicians. It has also fractured the democratic camp.

Political analyst Jean-Rober Raviot says: "To this day, the Union of Rightist Forces -- the "descendants" of Yeltsin's 1993 supporters -- and Yabloko, which brings together democratic critics of the coup, are incapable of joining forces."

It is a split that may cost those parties many of their seats in December's Duma elections.