Russia: On the ruins of the constitution

Issue 

By Boris Kagarlitsky

MOSCOW — When Russian citizens elected new people's deputies in the spring of 1990, they believed they were laying the basis for democratic change. And when the deputies elected Yeltsin chairperson of the Supreme Soviet, they saw in him a person who was capable of unifying the country and of ensuring a smooth and painless transition to a new society. Three years of hopes, illusions, disappointments and conflicts came to an end in the bloody slaughter of October 3 and 4, when, on Yeltsin's orders, tank crews shelled the same parliament that had brought him to power.

However tragic these events might have been, they were by no means unexpected. Yeltsin never concealed his desire for absolute power or his contempt for the constitution he had sworn to uphold. From the beginning, the program of economic reforms he proclaimed was incompatible with democratic methods of rule.

Drawing on the economic theories embraced by General Pinochet and his colleagues in Argentina and Uruguay, the Russian reformers were also forced to use their political methods.

The layer of "new Russians" (nouveaux russes, nouveaux riches) made haste to seize hold of the levers of economic and political power. Former Communist functionaries who had joined with mafia chieftains, corrupt bureaucrats and young hustlers, they had no interest in anything except dollars.

In two years of "reforms", they created multimillion-dollar fortunes without investing a cent in Russian industry, growing rich through plundering state property and selling the country off to foreign firms.

While everywhere expensive shops, fashionable restaurants and currency exchange bureaus were opening their doors, the flight of capital to the West turned into a national disaster. At the same time, industry was falling apart, the development of up-to-date technologies had ceased, and university research programs were cancelled.

The new ruling layer felt no respect for the people of their own country, seeing in them only raw material for their operations. The liberal culture of this lumpen-bourgeoisie could be summed up as the demand for absolute freedom of commerce, and a belief in the effectiveness of absolute corruption.

The luxury flaunted by the new rich amid the catastrophic impoverishment of the masses was an implicit challenge to the population; the ordinary people, the country's new rulers suggested, ought to know their place. Free trade unions, strict obedience to the law, the equal rights of citizens and the existence of a legal opposition were seen by these circles as obstacles to "normal" economic development.

Having brought Yeltsin and his team to power, the parliament was considered to have fulfilled its task; all that remained for it was to depart the scene. Almost daily, appeals for a coup appeared in the pages of pro-government newspapers, and arguments concerning the alleged advantages of military dictatorship over parliamentarism became commonplace long before the conflict arose between the president and parliament.

Several days before the October carnage the newspaper Segodnya, which is close to the "reformers", wrote that opposition voters would be better off not "fussing around in the polling booths", since whatever the result of the voting, no changes would be allowed in the country. There is now even a new definition of the word "democrat": a democrat is someone who calls for the banning of opposition parties, for the censoring of the press, for the abolition of the constitution and for mass repression.

As the economic situation deteriorated, dissatisfaction increased. The government sought to frighten people with talk of a "communist conspiracy", while centrists and even liberals passed over into the opposition. The people at the head of the parliamentary opposition in 1993 were Yeltsin's closest comrades in arms in 1990 and 1991.

Rutskoi and Khasbulatov played significant roles in bringing Yeltsin to power, and were rewarded with prominent state posts. The Constitutional Court, headed by Valery Zorkin, was also founded with Yeltsin's active support as an organ designed to ensure that political reforms would go ahead. If Yeltsin in 1991 enjoyed an absolute majority in the parliament, as early as the spring of 1993 his solid support among the deputies was reckoned at little more than 20%.

Yeltsin had already attempted several times to deal with the people's deputies once and for all; he tried to dissolve the parliament in December 1992 and March 1993. Both attempts ended in humiliating failure. After these defeats, Yeltsin was obliged — in Zorkin's tactful words — to "return to the framework of the constitution".

During the summer, the president made a tour of the military districts, trying to bolster his reputation in the army. Meanwhile, his staff were working day and night to prepare a coup. A series of developments — the eviction of Vice-President Rutskoi from the Kremlin, a propaganda campaign unleashed via state television, and the rejection of talks with the trade unions against the background of a growing strike movement — indicated that the authorities had resolved to settle the matter by force. In the parliament, the coming putsch was discussed in one debate after another, but no-one worked out plans for resistance.

Nevertheless, when Yeltsin declared the parliament disbanded on September 21, the resistance turned out to be unexpectedly strong. For almost two weeks the deputies, refusing to disperse, withstood the siege of the "White House". They were without electricity or heating, surrounded by razor wire and blockaded by troops.

Thousands of people came to the parliament building. Police and Interior Ministry special forces beat them and drove them away, but they returned. It seemed that something never before seen in Russia might occur — the law might triumph over coercion, and civil disobedience might force the troops to yield. But this was not to happen.

On October 3 government forces, opening fire on demonstrators near the Moscow mayor's office, provoked an armed confrontation. The opposition had been winning in the peaceful stand-off due to its moral authority, but force of arms settled the issue in favour of Yeltsin. Hundreds of people were killed and wounded. Tanks shelled the parliament building from point-blank range.

On the first night of the new regime the repression began. Thousands of people were detained. The Moscow City Council and the regional councils were disbanded like the Supreme Soviet before them, and many of the deputies were arrested. The detainees were systematically beaten.

Press censorship was introduced, and a state of emergency was imposed on Moscow. All the opposition daily newspapers were seized or their premises occupied. Television programs which did not reflect the views of the government were cancelled.

Most of the opposition parties were banned, and the rights of the trade unions were restricted. The Constitutional Court was suspended by order of the president. In place of duly elected general prosecutor of Russia Stepankov, Yeltsin installed his supporter Aleksei Kazannik, breaching all the established procedures in order to make the appointment.

After a few days, the repression was softened to a degree. Some of the people who had been arrested were released, and prior censorship was replaced by the threat of reprisals against dissident publications.

Every day the authorities repeated their promise to hold elections, while constantly changing the rules. At the same time, the country's leaders and their loyal press let it be firmly understood that in no circumstances would the opposition be allowed to participate in the new Federal Assembly. The projected upper house, the Council of the Federation, was dissolved before it had ever met, after its members had made clear that they would not meekly fulfil Yeltsin's commands. The epoch of democratic experiments in Russia had come to an end.

Created by parliament

However tragic these events, the parliament deserved its fate because it had itself created the mechanisms for Yeltsin's dictatorship. The parliament had given Yeltsin emergency powers; it had aided in the creation of uncontrolled executive organs; it had replaced elections for the heads of local administrations with a system of presidential appointments; it had undermined the rights of the local soviets; it had created the post of executive president of Russia; and it had concentrated unlimited power in the president's hands. It was the parliament that brought Yegor Gaidar into the government, and that approved his extremist economic policies.

But whatever the mistakes and sins of the Russian parliament, nothing can excuse the actions of the Western politicians who applauded the crushing of democracy in Russia. Even if Russia survives its present political and economic catastrophe, the moral catastrophe of the West will not be less complete.

No-one should try to hide behind a cloak of ignorance. The shelling of the parliament took place from positions 20 metres from the US Embassy. Right there, deputies were beaten and prisoners humiliated. The journalists who told the Western public of a communist conspiracy in Russia, and of a parliament which supposedly was "not freely elected" and which obstructed "progressive changes", worked in close collusion with the propaganda bureaus of the Kremlin, consciously misinforming their readers and viewers.

Only recently, people in Russia used to believe in the West. Today, even liberals speak of its treachery and hypocrisy. Russians have seen for themselves that the West does not want democracy in the East, and that to use the words of the Moscow City Council deputy Alexander Kalinin, the West consciously sets out to transform Russia into "a banana republic where bananas won't grow".

The great majority of Russians have now learned this lesson. This experience will determine Russia's relationship to the West for several generations. We will not forget and will not forgive what the West did to us during these fateful days.

The world leaders who supported the Yeltsin regime, and who heaped public scorn on our legality and our civil rights, will soon be looking for ways to reverse their decision. The Yeltsin regime is a dictatorship riddled with corruption, incompetence and inefficiency. It has no mass base, and no chance of economic success. Such regimes do not last long.

So long as the country's social, economic and political problems remain unsolved, opposition will increase, despite the bans and repression. The leaders of the parliament have departed the scene, and the old organisations have been crushed, but the struggle is continuing. Once again, broad democratic slogans and the need to defend basic human rights are uniting socialists and honest liberals. But it is now all too obvious that our civil rights cannot be defended while the social interests of the majority are being trampled upon.

If the Communist Party is subjected to persecution, it is our duty to defend its right to exist, just as we fought in the past for the legalisation of other parties. But it will not be the old slogans and the old forces that play the critical role in organising resistance. The old opposition is weighed down with prejudices, and with the burden of responsibility for crimes and errors. A new opposition is arising to take its place. This new opposition will draw lessons from the experience of the past, and will succeed in presenting the regime with a challenge. [Disseminated by KAS-KOR Labour Information Centre, Moscow. Boris Kagarlitsky, a deputy to the Moscow City Council, was arrested and beaten by police during the October 3-4 events.]

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