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Yeltsin Destroyed Parliamentary Democracy In Russia

Ruslan Khasbulatov
Ruslan Khasbulatov

Fifteen years ago this week, the Russian legislative and executive branches were locked in a fierce standoff. On October 4, 1993, Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered tanks to fire on the parliament building and, by the end of the day, the leaders of the parliamentary opposition -- speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov and Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi -- had been arrested. Shortly thereafter, Yeltsin called new legislative elections and a national referendum on a new constitution that gave far broader authority to the president for December 1993. Khasbulatov and Rutskoi were released from custody in 1994.

Fifteen years is of course a colossal period of time -- it is 15 years since the day when the question was finally closed and the Russian Federation Supreme Soviet was destroyed by gunfire. I would like to say at the outset that it was probably the most democratic parliament in the whole of Russian history.

The elections that brought us to power in 1990 took place at the peak of the democratic transformations under then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, it was at the height of that wave that we people's deputies of the Russian Federation were elected in quite a fierce competition with the old Communist Party system that nonetheless didn't stop us. Indeed it was already no longer in a position to do so, although it undertook ineffective attempts in that direction. Almost all the deputies who were elected had criticized the existing party-administrative system and proposed new approaches to solving the problems that Russia faced.

At that time society was under the spell of romantic expectations, and of course we believed that we would be able to change the situation in the country for the better.

For that reason, the parliament too looked to the future. These were very well-educated people and well prepared for the job, and they proved themselves at the time of the August 1991 putsch against Gorbachev, when they reacted intelligently and fearlessly.

I want to dispel the myth that it was then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin who defeated the putschists. That simply isn't true -- the only person who supported Yeltsin was his chief bodyguard Aleksandr Korzhakov, if you remember him.

As soon as the news of the coup broke, I immediately convened a session of the Supreme Soviet, and our 400 deputies who were there in the parliament building did a tremendous job of winning over the armed forces and the population of Moscow. It was we, the people's deputies of the Russian Federation, who finally thwarted the putschists.

What Yeltsin Wrought

Then we immediately embarked on reforms. Over a short period we adopted over 250 fundamental organic laws that replaced socialism with capitalism, and it is those fundamental laws we adopted that form the foundation of the present-day Russian state. The reason I stress this is that the West in 1993 unfortunately supported Yeltsin in his cannibalistic undertaking and branded our parliament as red-brown (meaning a combination of Communists and fascists).

But I think that by now people have come to realize that it is the authoritarian constitution that supplanted the constitution that perished during the storm of parliament in 1993 that made possible the building of the state structure that is being subjected to criticism today.

The question arises: did that system emerge of its own accord? Of course not, it came into being after the victory of the Yeltsin camp, after the storm of the parliament, when Yeltsin concentrated unlimited dictatorial powers in his own hands. It was Yeltsin who imposed on the country a constitution that does not even provide any longer for a parliament. That is the key point: there is no parliament, parliamentary democracy has died, it was destroyed by gunfire in 1993. That is the hallmark of the new state system and the new constitution.

The second consequence is wars, endless Chechen wars, Caucasian wars. Imagine a situation in which for almost 10 of the 17 years that the new Russian Federation, the new Russian state has existed, there has been war in Chechnya. What kind of society has emerged as a result? A society with militaristic tendencies, a society rent by enmity, a society in which people distrust each other.

This war psychology has left an indelible mark on the individual and collective consciousness; it is the source of mutual ill-will and the massive increase in corruption. The reason for that growth in corruption is that people have no trust in a state that revealed itself as criminal when it opened fire on its own parliament. What kind of authority can such a state have? That is the reason for corruption, murders, and other serious crimes.

The destruction of the Russian parliament had a huge impact on Russian society, on Russian institutions, on the state as a whole, on the actions of the country's leaders, and on the behavioral motivation of individual citizens. These, unfortunately, are aspects that are not known in the West, and people prefer not to discuss them even within Russian society.

Thus the consequences of 1993 were extremely grave and it will not prove possible to reverse their negative impact in the near future. That, in brief, is what happened in 1993 and the consequences.

Ruslan Khasbulatov served as Russian Federation Supreme Soviet speaker from October 1991 until the parliament was forcibly dissolved in October 1993, when he was arrested. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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