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1993 Russian constitutional crisis

Related subjects Recent History

1993 Russian constitutional crisis
Date September 21 - October 5, 1993
Location White House, Moscow
Flag of Russia Russia
Result Coup d'état: Artillery bombardment forcing the surrender of parliament. Constitutional Court is suspended. Presidential rule by decree is imposed. Opposition political parties and newspapers are banned.
Belligerents

President of the Russian Federation
Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation
Ministry of the Interior of the Russian Federation

Vice President of the Russian Federation
Congress of People's Deputies of the Russian Federation
Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation
National Salvation Front
Commanders
Boris Yeltsin
Pavel Grachev
Viktor Yerin
Alexander Rutskoy
Valery Zorkin
Ruslan Khasbulatov
Albert Makashov
Casualties and losses
12 killed (of which at least 9 by friendly fire)
187 killed, 437 wounded (official government estimate)
Up to 2,000 killed (other sources)

The Russian constitutional crisis of 1993 began on September 21, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin illegally dissolved the country's legislature ( Congress of People's Deputies and its Supreme Soviet), which opposed his moves to consolidate power and push forward with unpopular neoliberal reforms. Yeltsin's decree of September 21 contravened the then-functioning constitution; on October 15, after the end of the crisis, he ordered a referendum on a new constitution.

The Congress rejected the decree and voted to remove Yeltsin from the Presidency through impeachment. In accordance with the existing constitution, his estranged Vice President, Aleksandr Rutskoy was sworn in as Acting President. On September 28, public protests against Yeltsin's government began in earnest on the streets of Moscow where the first blood was shed. The army remained under Yeltsin's control, which determined the outcome of the crisis. The legislators found themselves barricaded inside the White House of Russia parliament building. For the next week, anti-Yeltsin protests grew, until a mass uprising erupted in the city on October 2. Russia was on the brink of civil war. At this point the security and military elites threw their support behind Yeltsin, besieged the parliament building, and through the use of tank artillery nearly destroyed the building and cleared it of the democratically elected legislature.

By October 5, 1993, armed resistance to Yeltsin had been crushed. The ten-day conflict had seen the most deadly street fighting in Moscow since the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917. According to government estimates, 187 people had been killed and 437 wounded, while other sources maintain that the real death toll was as high as 2,000.

Despite the levels of violence used and the political repressions that followed, Yeltsin had the support of U.S. President Bill Clinton and other Western leaders.

Origins of the crisis

Intensifying executive-legislative power struggle

As part of Russian economic reform during the 1990s, Yeltsin's program took effect on January 2, 1992. Soon afterward prices skyrocketed, government spending was slashed, and heavy new taxes went into effect. A deep credit crunch shut down many industries and brought about a protracted depression. Certain politicians began quickly to distance themselves from the program; and increasingly the ensuing political confrontation between Yeltsin on the one side, and the opposition to radical economic reform on the other, became centered in the two branches of government.

Throughout 1992, opposition to Yeltsin's reform policies grew stronger and more intractable among those concerned about the condition of Russian industry and among regional leaders who wanted more independence from Moscow. Russia's vice president, Aleksandr Rutskoy, denounced the Yeltsin program as "economic genocide." Leaders of oil-rich republics such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan called for full independence from Russia.

Also throughout 1992, Yeltsin wrestled with the Supreme Soviet (the standing legislature) and the Russian Congress of People's Deputies (the country's highest legislative body, from which the Supreme Soviet members were drawn) for control over government and government policy. In 1992 the speaker of the Russian Supreme Soviet, Ruslan Khasbulatov, came out in opposition to the reforms, despite claiming to support Yeltsin's overall goals.

The president was concerned about the terms of the constitutional amendments passed in late 1991, which meant that his special powers of decree were set to expire by the end of 1992 (Yeltsin expanded the powers of the presidency beyond normal constitutional limits in carrying out the reform program). Yeltsin, awaiting implementation of his privatization program, demanded that parliament reinstate his decree powers (only parliament had the authority to replace or amend the constitution). But in the Russian Congress of People's Deputies and in the Supreme Soviet, the deputies refused to adopt a new constitution that would enshrine the scope of presidential powers demanded by Yeltsin into law.

Seventh session of the Congress of People's Deputies (CPD)

During its December 1992 session, the parliament clashed with Yeltsin on a number of issues, and the conflict came to a head on December 9 when the parliament refused to confirm Yegor Gaidar, the widely unpopular architect of Russia's " shock therapy" market liberalizations, as prime minister. The parliament refused to nominate Gaidar, demanding modifications of the economic program and directed the Central Bank, which was under the parliament's control, to continue issuing credits to enterprises to keep them from shutting down.

In an angry speech the next day on December 10, Yeltsin deemed the congress as a "fortress of conservative and reactionary forces." Parliament responded by voting to take control of the parliamentary army.

On December 12, Yeltsin and parliament speaker Khasbulatov agreed on a compromise that included the following provisions: (1) a national referendum on framing a new Russian constitution to be held in April 1993; (2) most of Yeltsin's emergency powers were extended until the referendum; (3) the parliament asserted its right to nominate and vote on its own choices for prime minister; and (4) the parliament asserted its right to reject the president's choices to head the Defense, Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Security ministries. Yeltsin nominated Viktor Chernomyrdin to be prime minister on December 14, and the parliament confirmed him.

Yeltsin's December 1992 compromise with the seventh Congress of the People's Deputies temporarily backfired. Early 1993 saw increasing tension between Yeltsin and the parliament over the language of the referendum and power sharing. In a series of collisions over policy, the congress whittled away the president's extraordinary powers, which it had granted him in late 1991. The legislature, marshaled by Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, began to sense that it could block and even defeat the president. The tactic that it adopted was gradually to erode presidential control over the government. In response, the president called a referendum on a constitution for April 11.

Eighth session of the CPD

The eighth Congress of People's Deputies opened on March 10, 1993 with a strong attack on the president by Khasbulatov, who accused Yeltsin of acting unconstitutionally. In mid-March, an emergency session of the Congress of People's Deputies voted to amend the constitution, strip Yeltsin of many of his powers, and cancel the scheduled April referendum, again opening the door to legislation that would shift the balance of power away from the president. The president stalked out of the congress. Vladimir Shumeyko, first deputy prime minister, declared that the referendum would go ahead, but on April 25.

The parliament was gradually expanding its influence over the government. On March 16 the president signed a decree that conferred Cabinet rank on Viktor Gerashchenko, chairman of the central bank, and three other officials; this was in accordance with the decision of the eighth congress that these officials should be members of the government. The congress' ruling, however, had made it clear that as ministers they would continue to be subordinate to parliament.

"Special regime"

The president's response was dramatic. On March 20 Yeltsin addressed the nation directly to declare that he has just signed the decree introducing a "special regime", under which he would assume extraordinary executive power pending the results of a referendum on the timing of new legislative elections, on a new constitution, and on public confidence in the president and vice president. Yeltsin also strongly opposed the parliament, accusing the deputies of trying to restore the Soviet-era order.

Vice President Rutskoy, a key Yeltsin opponent, condemned Yeltsin's declaration as a grab for special powers. After the Constitutional Court ruled that Yeltsin had indeed acted unconstitutionally, it turned out that another decree was signed instead, which did not violate the constitution.

Ninth session of the CPD

The ninth congress, which opened on March 26, began with an extraordinary session of the Congress of People's Deputies taking up discussions of emergency measures to defend the constitution, including impeachment of President Yeltsin. Yeltsin conceded that he had made mistakes and reached out to swing voters in parliament. Yeltsin publicly swore he would not obey a congressional decision against him during impeachment, but he narrowly survived a vote on March 28; votes for impeachment falling 72 short of the 689 votes needed for a 2/3 majority.

National referendum

The referendum would go ahead, but since the impeachment vote failed, the Congress of People's Deputies sought to set new terms for a popular referendum. The legislature's version of the referendum asked whether citizens had confidence in Yeltsin, approved of his reforms, and supported early presidential and legislative elections. The parliament voted that in order to win, the president would need to obtain 50% of the whole electorate, rather than 50% of those actually voting, to avoid an early presidential election.

This time, the Constitutional Court supported Yeltsin and ruled that the president required only a simple majority on two issues: confidence in him, and economic and social policy; he would need the support of half the electorate in order to call new parliamentary and presidential elections.

Yeltsin's gamble paid off in the referendum, on April 25. A majority of voters expressed confidence in the president and called for new legislative elections. Yeltsin termed the results a mandate for him to continue in power. Although this permitted the president to declare that the population supported him, not the parliament, he lacked a constitutional mechanism to implement his victory. As before, the president had to use the tactic of appealing to the people over the heads of the legislature elected by the same people.

Constitutional convention

In an attempt to outmaneuver the parliament, Yeltsin decreed the creation of a large conference of political leaders from a wide range of government institutions, regions, public organizations, and political parties in June — a "special constitutional convention" to examine the draft constitution that he had presented in April. After much hesitation, the Constitutional Committee of the Congress of People's Deputies decided to participate and present its own draft constitution. Of course, the two main drafts contained contrary views of legislative-executive relations.

Some 200 representatives at the conference ultimately adopted a draft constitution on July 12 that envisaged a bicameral legislature and the dissolution of the congress. But because the convention's draft of the constitution would dissolve the congress, there was little likelihood that the congress would vote itself into oblivion. The Supreme Soviet immediately rejected the draft and declared that the Congress of People's Deputies was the supreme lawmaking body and hence would decide on the new constitution.

The parliament was active in July, while the president was on vacation, and passed a number of decrees that revised economic policy in order to "end the division of society." It also launched investigations of key advisers of the president, accusing them of corruption. The president returned in August and declared that he would deploy all means, including circumventing the constitution, to achieve new parliamentary elections.

Clashes of power in September

The president launched his offensive on September 1 when he attempted to suspend Vice President Rutskoy, a key adversary. Rutskoy, elected on the same ticket as Yeltsin in 1991, was the president's automatic successor. A presidential spokesman said that he had been suspended because of "accusations of corruption." On September 3, the Supreme Soviet rejected Yeltsin's suspension of Rutskoy and referred the question to the Constitutional Court.

Two weeks later he declared that he would agree to call early presidential elections provided that the parliament also called elections. The parliament ignored him. On September 18, Yeltsin then named Yegor Gaidar, who had been forced out of office by parliamentary opposition in 1992, a deputy prime minister and a deputy premier for economic affairs. This appointment was unacceptable to the Supreme Soviet, which emphatically rejected it.

Siege and assault

On September 21, 1993, President Boris Yeltsin dissolved the Supreme Soviet, which was in direct contradiction with the articles of Russian Constitution, e.g.:

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.

He also scrapped the constitution, replacing it with one that gave him extraordinary executive powers. (According to the new plan, the lower house would have 450 deputies and be called the State Duma, the name of the Russian legislature before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The Federation Council, which would bring together representatives from the 89 subdivisions of the Russian Federation, would play the role of an upper house.)

Yeltsin claimed that by dissolving the Russian parliament in September 1993 he was clearing the tracks for a rapid transition to a functioning market economy. With this pledge, he received strong backing from the leading capitalist powers of the West and the other Soviet successor states. Yeltsin's biggest political asset has always been his close relationship to the Western powers, particularly the United States, but this has left him open to charges in Russia of being an agent of foreign interests and of groveling before the West.

Parliament invalidates Yeltsin's presidency

Rutskoy called Yeltsin's move a step toward a coup d'etat. The next day, the Constitutional Court held that Yeltsin had violated the constitution and could be impeached. During an all-night session, chaired by Khasbulatov, parliament declared the president's decree null and void. Rutskoy was proclaimed president and took the oath on the constitution. He dismissed Yeltsin and the key ministers Pavel Grachev (defense), Nikolay Golushko (security), and Viktor Yerin (interior). Russia now had two presidents and two ministers of defense, security, and interior. It was dual power in earnest. Although Gennady Zyuganov and other top leaders of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation did not participate in the events, individual members of communist organizations actively supported the parliament.

On September 24, an undaunted Yeltsin 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 scoffed at the parliament backed-proposal for simultaneous elections, and responded the next day by cutting off electricity, phone service, and hot water in the parliament building.

Mass protests in Moscow

Yeltsin also sparked popular unrest with his dissolution of a parliament increasingly opposed to his neoliberal economic reforms. Between September 21-24, the general atmosphere changed in favour of the defenders of the parliament. Moscow saw what amounted to a spontaneous mass uprising of anti-Yeltsin demonstrators numbering in the tens of thousands marching in the streets resolutely seeking to aid forces defending the parliament building. However, the army leaders remained faithful to Yeltsin.

The demonstrators were protesting against the new and terrible living conditions under Yeltsin. Since 1989 GDP had declined by half. Corruption was rampant, violent crime was skyrocketing, medical services were collapsing, food and fuel were increasingly scarce and life expectancy was falling for all but a tiny handful of the population; moreover, Yeltsin was increasingly getting the blame. Outside Moscow, the Russian masses overall were confused and disorganized. Nonetheless, some of them also tried to voice their protest. Sporadic strikes took place across Russia.

On September 28, Moscow saw the first bloody clashes between the OMON riot police and anti-Yeltsin demonstrators. This repression of the mass demonstrations in Moscow had a comparable effect to that meted out by the French police to the students in the May 1968 demonstration that nearly culminated in the fall of Charles de Gaulle. It rallied them for a mass protest action, but one that the popular demonstrators would ultimately lose.

Also on September 28, the Interior Ministry moved to seal off the parliament building. Barricades and wire were put around the building. On October 1, the Interior Ministry estimated that 600 fighting men with a large cache of arms had joined Yeltsin's political opponents in the parliament building. On September 30, the first barricades were built.

The leaders of parliament were still not discounting the prospects of a compromise with Yeltsin. The Russian Orthodox Church acted as a host to desultory discussions between representatives of the parliament and the president. The negotiations with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch as mediator continued until October 2. On the afternoon of October 3, however, Moscow police failed to control a demonstration near the White House, and the political impasse developed into armed conflict.

Storming of the television premises

October 2 and October 3 were the culmination of violent clashes with the police. On October 2, supporters of parliament constructed barricades and blocked traffic on Moscow's main streets. On the afternoon of October 3, armed opponents of Yeltsin successfully stormed the police cordon around the White House territory (where the Russian parliament was barricaded). 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.

Aleksandr Rutskoy, barricaded inside the White House, hailed the protesting crowd. Rutskoy greeted the crowds from the White House balcony, and urged them to go on to seize the national television centre at Ostankino. Khasbulatov also called for the storming of the Kremlin. With some people already dead on the streets, Yeltsin declared a state of emergency in Moscow.

On the evening of October 3, after taking the mayor's office, anti-Yeltsin demonstrators marched toward Ostankino, the television centre. But the pro-parliament crowds were met at the television complex by Interior Ministry units. A pitched battle followed. Part of the TV centre was significantly damaged. Television stations went off the air and 62 people were killed. Before midnight, the Interior Ministry's units had turned back the parliament loyalists.

When broadcasting resumed late in the evening, Yegor Gaidar called on television for a meeting in support of President Yeltsin. Several hundred of Yeltsin's supporters spent the night in the square in front of the Moscow City Hall preparing for further clashes, only to learn in the morning of October 4 that the army was on their side.

Storming of the White House

Between October 2-4, the position of the army was the deciding factor. The military debated for several hours whether or not respond to Yeltsin's call for action. By this time dozens of people had been killed and hundreds had been wounded.

Rutskoy, as a former general, appealed to some of his ex-colleagues. After all, many officers and especially rank-and-file soldiers had little sympathy for Yeltsin. But the supporters of the parliament did not send any emissaries to the barracks to recruit lower-ranking officer corps, making the fatal mistake of attempting to deliberate only among high-ranking military officials who already had close ties to parliamentary leaders. In the end, a prevailing bulk of the generals did not want to take their chances with a Rutskoy-Khasbulatov regime. Some generals had stated their intention to back the parliament, but at the last moment moved over to Yeltsin's side.

By sunrise, October 4, the Russian army encircled the parliament building, and a few hours later army tanks began to shell the White House. By noon, troops entered the White House and began to occupy it, floor by floor. Hostilities were stopped several times to allow some in the White House to leave, but Khasbulatov and Rutskoy stayed to the bitter end before surrendering. Many in the building, including Rutskoy and Khasbulatov, were taken away in the end in buses. By mid-afternoon, popular resistance in the streets was completely suppressed, barring an occasional sniper's fire.

Crushing the "second October Revolution," which, as mentioned, saw the deadliest street fighting in Moscow since 1917, cost hundreds of lives. Police said, on October 8, that 187 had died in the conflict and 437 had been wounded. Unofficial sources named much higher numbers: up to 2,000 dead, mostly inside the White House; many are said to have been executed in the basement of the Parliament building. In any event, nearly all the victims were killed by troops loyal to Yeltsin. Russian Army and Interior Ministry lost 12 soldiers, at least 9 of which were accidentally killed by their own men. It had been a close call; Yeltsin owed his victory to the military, the former KGB, and the Ministry of Interior, not to support from the regions or a popular base of support.

But he was backed by the military only grudgingly, and at the eleventh hour. The instruments of coercion gained the most, and they would expect Yeltsin to reward them in the future. A paradigmatic example of this was General Pavel Grachev, who had demonstrated his loyalty during this crisis. Grachev became a key political figure, despite many years of charges that he was linked to corruption within the Russian military.

The crisis was a strong example of the problems of executive-legislative balance in Russia's presidential system, and, moreover, the likelihood of conflict of a zero-sum character and the absence of obvious mechanisms to resolve it. In the end, this was a battle of competing legitimacy of the executive and the legislature, won by the side that could muster the support of the ultimate instruments of coercion.

Yeltsin's consolidation of power

End of the first constitutional period

On December 12, Yeltsin managed to push through his new constitution, creating a strong presidency and giving the president sweeping powers to issue decrees. (For details on the constitution passed in 1993 see the Constitution and government structure of Russia.)

However, the parliament elected on the same day (with a turnout of about 53%) delivered a stunning rebuke to his neoliberal economic program. Candidates identified with Yeltsin's economic policies were overwhelmed by a huge protest vote, the bulk of which was divided between the Communists (who mostly drew their support from industrial workers, out-of-work bureaucrats, some professionals, and pensioners) and the ultra-nationalists (who drew their support from disaffected elements of the lower middle classes). Unexpectedly, the most surprising insurgent group proved to be the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR). It gained 23% of the vote while the Gaidar led 'Russia's Choice' received 15.5% and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, 12.4%. LDPR leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, alarmed many observers abroad with his neo-fascist, chauvinist declarations.

Nevertheless, the referendum marked the end of the constitutional period defined by the constitution adopted by the Russian SFSR in 1978, which was amended many times while Russia was a part of Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union. (For further details on the democratization of the former Soviet Union, see History of the Soviet Union (1985–1991).) Although Russia would emerge as a dual presidential-parliamentary system in theory, substantial power would rest in the president's hands. Russia now has a prime minister who heads a cabinet and directs the administration, but the system is an example of presidentialism with the cover of a presidential prime minister, not an effective semipresidential constitutional model. (The premier, for example, is appointed, and in effect freely dismissed, by the president.)