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Pol/Econ: Who Lost Russia?
Sunday, 10 December 2006 Written by Garrett Johnson
"The Russian people are not ready for democracy."
- Putin's chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin
(Click for larger image)
A few days ago the Washington Post had an article full of hand-wringing concerning the decline of democracy in Vladimir Putin's Russia. A few months earlier the Post went into some depth about Putin's background. You might recall back in 2004 when Putin disposed of direct elections, how the progressive community was outraged.

They shouldn't have been.

Democracy in Russia started dying shortly after it was born. For a clue how little has changed, note what Putin's first act in office was - to sign a decree of immunity for Boris Yeltsin.
"Instruction number one for obtaining full power has been completed."
- Putin, on assuming the presidency

A little known fact (at least in America) is that since 1993, democrats (liberals, pro-Westerner reformers) have failed to win a single federal election in Russia. Why is that, and what does it have to do with the death of democracy in Russia? Let's take a little trip back in history and find out why.


In March 1990 a parliament, founded on the model of soviet democracy, was elected in Russia. This parliament consisted of two elements: there was the huge Congress of People‘s Deputies, numbering 1068 members. According to the soviet principle of delegation, a reduced working parliament was elected by the Congress. This so-called Supreme Soviet fulfilled the task of usual parliamentary day-to-day work and was composed of 252 members. The Chairman of the Supreme Soviet supported by a Presidium acted as head of parliament.
The Russian Constitution was created in 1978. It was much amended and had no clear seperation of powers. The leverage the parliament had was that it could impeach the president, while the president could not dissolve the parliament.

Back in August, 1991, Boris Yeltsin was thrust into the spotlight as one of the leaders who thwarted the communist coup in Russia. New Russian President Boris Yeltsin standing on the tank is well remembered.

What isn't so well remembered is the building Yeltsin was standing in front of and defending. It was the White House (aka Russia's Parliament building).

Shortly afterwards the Soviet Union dissolved and Yelstin pushed through economic reforms that led directly to high inflation, high taxes, and high unemployment. In Russia it was referred to as "a shock without therapy". Vice President Aleksandr V. Rutskoi called it "economic genocide". The petroleum and mining industries were sold off for just $600 million, far less than what they were worth. Russia assumed responsibility for the USSR's external debts, eventhough they were only 50% of the population of the former USSR. Energy-rich republics within Russia called for independence. All the while American politicians and Wall Street cheered Yeltsin on.

Aleksandr Rutskoy
(Click for larger image)
How about the Russian people? When asked who they trusted more in 1992, 42% of people interviewed declared their confidence in the legislative. The executive amassed a hardly better 43%. Obviously the Russian people were cynical.

Yeltsin's economic reforms required powers that were outside of his constitutional powers, so he demanded the Russian Congress of People's Deputies and in the Supreme Soviet adopt a new constitution enshrining those powers in the presidency. They refused.

This clash started to come to a head on December 9, 1992, when parliament refused to confirm Yegor Gaidar, the architect of Yelstin's economic reforms, as prime minister. Yelstin denounced the congress, and congress responded by voting to take control of the parliamentary army. A couple days later a compromise was found and the crisis appeared to pass. One of the most important compromises was that parliament would decide who the prime minister would be. But appearences were deceiving.

Congress kept whitling away at the power that were granted to Yeltsin in 1991.

The First Act

MOSCOW, MARCH 12, 1993 -- President Boris Yeltsin, stung by a humiliating defeat in Russia's conservative Congress today, stormed out and vowed to defend his reform programs and settle the country's debilitating power struggle by taking his case to the voters.

Yeltsin's declaration and congressional defiance put the two branches of government on a collision course that had politicians talking of impeachment, presidential rule and civil war, although less drastic moves remain likely.

"The smooth reformist period has ended," said Yeltsin's legal strategist, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Shakhrai. "We are on the verge of unpredictable events."

Yeltsin's political authority was damaged much more severely than his legal powers as the Congress of People's Deputies, a holdover from the Soviet political system, ignored his pleas for compromise and his threats of unspecified "additional measures." Instead, it voted overwhelmingly to give itself the power to suspend Yeltsin's decrees and to make it easier to remove him from office for unconstitutional behavior. It also canceled the December agreement that authorized a referendum next month to settle the question of who should rule Russia.
Yeltsin's response was dramatic. He went on national TV and accused the parliament of trying to restore the Soviet-era order. He announced a "special regime" in which he would assume near-dictatorial powers. When the Constitutional Court ruled against Yelstin, he backed down.

When the new parliament took office on March 26th they moved to impeach Yeltsin. Yeltsin admitted making mistakes and worked hard to fend off the impeachment. Yeltsin's opponents gathered more than 600 votes for impeachment, but fell 72 votes short needed for the 2/3 majority.

The Second Act

The public referendum was held on 25 April 1993. The parliament tried to frame the questions to be the most negative for Yeltsin. 50% of the electorate and not only of the voters was required to approve of a question. Then the Constitutional Court got involved; it decided to decrease the high majority level at least for the first two questions, thus establishing the usual mode where the majority of participating voters counts. Regarding the second two questions on anticipated elections, the congress variant remained in place

• Do you have confidence in the President of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin?
• Do you approve of the socioeconomic policies carried out by the President of the Russian Federation and the government of the Russian Federation since 1992?
• Do you consider it necessary to hold early elections to the Presidency of the Russian Federation?
• Do you consider it necessary to hold early elections of the people’s deputies of the Russian Federation?

It backfired on parliament.

The voters passed a vote of confidence on the president, as he attained 58.7%. But more surprisingly, people even accepted his economic policy. In spite of the remarkable changes and difficulties caused by reform policy, 53% were in favour.

In contrast, voters clearly disapproved of the parliament. 67.2% declared that anticipated elections of People’s Deputies should be held. But this negative vote for the parliament did not result in elections, because for this question the participation of 64.5% of the electorate had to be taken into consideration.

That condition decreased the unfavourable outcome of nearly 70% to a mere 43.1%, thus below the 50%, which would have been necessary to invoke early elections.

To mention finally the result concerning the fourth question: 49.5% voted in favour of early presidential elections; a value, which was decreased according to the majority mode to 31.7%.

Both sides them busied themselves with drafting constitutions. Of course neither side agreed. There was little chance that the parliament would vote itself out of existence, which is what Yeltsin was pushing for. By the end of summer there was little the parliament and executive branch could agree on. Yeltsin told the press that September would be a "hot month" in Russian politics.

Meanwhile, on July 25th, the Russian Central Bank decided to void all old currency, and only gave the public 24 hours to exchange them. Limits were put on how much currency could be exchanged. Overnight, countless Russians were bankrupted. The move was made without a general government concensus.

The Final Act

On September 1st, Yeltsin attempted to suspend Vice President Rutskoy for "accusations of corruption." Parliament referred this to the Russian Constitutional Court has subsequently declared Yeltsin's decree as unconstitutional.

Yeltsin ignored the ruling and attempted to put Yegor Gaidar back into office. Parliament rejected him again, of course.
MOSCOW, SEPT. 21 -- President Boris Yeltsin tonight dissolved the parliament, a focal point of opposition to his economic and political reforms, and ordered December elections for a new legislature.

The dramatic and unexpected announcement threw Moscow into political chaos. Hours after Yeltsin's televised address, his arch-rival, Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, declared himself president of Russia and was sworn in by the parliament. Rutskoi said he was ordering government agencies to obey only him or parliamentary Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov.
Rutskoi had reason for doing this. According to the Russian Constitution:

Article 121-6. The powers of the President of Russian Federation cannot be used to change national and state organization of Russian Federation, to dissolve or to interfere with the functioning of any elected organs of state power. In this case, his powers cease immediately.

It was very clear. Either they could follow the law or not. Yeltsin decided that the Rule Of Law no longer worked for him, which left only Rule Of Force (i.e. something Putin has also decided). Even in Yeltsin's decree, he admitted that he was violating the Constitution. The Defense, Security, and Interior Ministers were also impeached by parliament.

48 governors (heads of regional administrations) backed Yeltsin. 57 regional Soviets supported the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation. At least that was what both sides were saying. More likely most governors were playing things close to the vest to see how it turned out.

Who wasn't playing things close to the vest was western powers. They completely supported this power grab by Yeltsin without question.

On September 24th Yelstin announced presidential elections for June 1994. The same day, the Congress of People's Deputies voted to hold simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections by March 1994.

Yeltsin responded by shutting off electricity, phone service, and hot water in the White House.

The public responds

(Click for larger image)
Yeltsin may have overestimated his public support. By the 24th there were mass protests in front of the White House, almost all of them were anti-Yeltsin.

The public was largely responding to the deteriorating living conditions in Russia. Since 1989 the GDP of Russia had been cut in half. Violent crime was skyrocketing. Corruption was rampant. The infrastructure was collapsing. This more than anything was the source of Yeltsin's opposition in parliament.

The army, up to this point, remained in the sidelines.

On September 27th, military units surrounded the parliament building, but the 180 delegates refused to leave. On the 28th, the first clashes between protesters and the military happened. On the 30th the protesters started building barricades in front of the White House. The same day the Russian Federation regions demanded that the seige of the parliament building be lifted or they would start withholding tax revenue and energy supplies to Moscow. By October 1st, around 600 parliament supporters had armed themselves in defense of the White House.

Coup D'Etat

The western media had no problem taking up sides in this struggle. For instance, the October 2nd edition of the BBC called the parliamentary support "rebels" and "pro-communists" and that the parliament members were "occupying the White House".
"It is clear that the violence was perpetrated by the Rutskoi-Khasbulatov forces. President Yeltsin has bent over backwards to avoid excessive force and I still am convinced that the United States must support him and the process of bringing about free and fair elections."
- President Clinton
"Shame! If you were my sons I would strangle you with my bare hands, you traitors!"
- an elderly Russian grandmother yelling at the riot police

The article did admit that the riot police who were sent to clear out the parliament supporters were driven by by rocks, steel bars and molotov cocktails. Some people died during the clashes.

On October 3rd, the protesters stormed the police cordon around the White House. The seige had been lifted. Paramilitaries from the Russian National Unity and Labour Russia movements, as well as a few units of the internal military (armed forces normally reporting to the Ministry of Interior), supported the parliament.
They marched in the crisp gold sunlight of a perfect autumn afternoon. Some 10,000 strong, they chanted "Soviet Union, Soviet Union," "Yeltsin is Dead," as they braved a hail of rubber bullets and tear gas from troops loyal to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Breaching police lines, the demonstrators recaptured the plaza behind the barricaded White House, where 100 or so deputies of the disbanded Russian Parliament, along with their aides and security men remained in defiance of Yeltsin. Former Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, a brief case held protectively before his chest, addressed the mob in fiery language, commanding them to "stand up, take positions . . . and attack." With that, the tense stand-off that has paralyzed Russia for nearly two weeks teetered into total chaos.

Overwhelming troops from the Interior Ministry, the demonstrators grabbed shields and guns from their opponents, commandeered several military vehicles, and swarmed south to the mammoth high rise that houses Moscow's mayor. Within an hour, the mob had seized control of the building. They then moved on to Ostenkino, the national television broadcasting center and seized it without any apparent resistance from pro-Yeltsin troops.
Aleksandr Rutskoy greeted the crowd and exorted them to seize the national television center. The protestors stormed the mayor's office and then set off for the television complex. They were met by Interior Ministry units and a running battle was fought in the streets of Moscow. Television stations went off the air during the engagement and 62 people were killed.

The army could no longer afford to not take sides.
I remember the morning of October 4th 1993; I woke up to my terrified parents bursting into our downtown Moscow apartment at 6 o’clock in the morning. They told me that they were driving home late from a friend’s house at the crack of dawn. As they were driving down the 6 lane street, they gazed with amazement at the completely deserted streets. Since we lived in the center of town, this was quite bizarre, and even terrifying. All of a sudden, recalled my mother, in the middle of the street, appeared about a dozen tanks, heading straight for her little orange Tavria. They seemed to have emerged from underground. The roar and buzzing was so load, and my terrified parents slammed on the breaks and reversed the car to escape from the tanks that surely intended to kill them.

My parents have never seen real tanks before, and they had absolutely no idea what was going on. They knew that there was some political unrest, but than again, these were chaotic times. However, no ne could imagine that this was another coup, only two years after the first one in 1991.
(Click for larger image)
The military decided to take the side of Yeltsin. But it wasn't quite how the western media covered it.
The decision by the Russian armed forces to back Boris Yeltsin against the Parliament in October 1993 was not a show of support for democracy and economic reform. It was a political decision to side with the forces in Russia that could manipulate power and address a multitude of foreign policy frustrations and internal disarray in the military. Shortly after the October crisis ended, the Russian government approved a new military doctrine. It is a highly political document which establishes the guidelines through which the military will receive its payback for their tenuous support for President Yeltsin.
The difference was Yeltsin was courting the military while the parliament failed to address anyone except the highest ranking officers. It really did come down to that.

By sunrise October 4, the tanks had surrounded the White House and began shelling it. At noon troops entered the building and began storming it floor by floor.

Police say that 187 people died in the fighting. Unofficial sources say the death toll was much higher. Almost everyone who died was killed by Yeltsin's forces. Yeltsin owed his victory to the military, not to any popular support.


Yeltsin immediately moved to consolidate power. The very next day he banned all political parties and newspapers that had supported the parliament. The leader of the Constitutional Court was forced to resign. Regional councils who opposed him were ordered to disband. Yeltsin also gutted many trade union administrative powers. Rutskoy and Ruslan Khasbulatov, leader of the Supreme Soviet, were imprisoned.

Yeltsin's new Constitution consolidated power in the executive branch. The Russian President would now select the Prime Minister without approval of the legislature. The military leadership was now totally in the hand of the executive branch. The president could keep the parliament in session even if it voted itself "no confidence". The president could no longer be impeached.

The basic structure of the Russian government has not changed since then. The strong presidential control that Yeltsin and the west wanted so bad that they would back a coup, is the same conditions that has helped Putin create a virtual dictatorship.
"Russia needs order."
- Yeltsin, November 1993

Ruslan Khasbulatov
The same day in December that the Constitution was pushed through, the Russian public elected a decidedly anti-Yeltsin parliament. Candidates identified with Yeltsin's economic policies were overwhelmed by a huge protest vote, the bulk of which was divided between the Communists and the ultra-nationalists.

In 1994 Rutskoy was released from prison. In 1996 he ran for governor of Kursk Oblast, which he won by a landslide.

Khasbulatov was also released from prison in 1994. He became a teacher of economics and later a leading critic of the war on Chechnya.

A poll coming out immediately after the fighting showed that 51% thought Yeltsin's use of force was justified. However, then years later another poll was taken which showed the Russian public had changed its mind in retrospect.