Uncommon Sense

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Last weekend marked the 15th anniversary of former President Boris Yeltsin's siege of the renegade White House. Yeltsin ordered tanks to fire on opposition lawmakers holed up inside and for troops to flush them out. Scores of people died in the ensuing violence.

The question about what lessons can be learned from those events is typically answered with the assertion that Russia's parliamentary system of government died. Some people go as far as to say that democracy disappeared and the principle of "the ends justify the means" became part of state policy. The authorities' overconfidence turned into a relaxation of restraint that led to the farcical elections of 1996. This "victory for democracy" was purchased with money from about 15 oligarchs, who were paid back handsomely at auctions for state assets.

The bloody events of 1993 leave me with a strange feeling that something is incomplete. Did Yeltsin only narrowly avert a civil war? Yes, partly. Here, some thanks to Yeltsin are in order for not hunting down and finishing off the parliament's supporters after disbanding the body. Thanks are also due to the followers of Vice President Alexander Rutskoi and Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov for not raising up an armed resistance to Yeltsin's government.

The October events leave impressions of other unfinished business as well. Russia did not make a final decision then about its future path. It did not decide if it was prepared to suffer through difficult but necessary market reforms to ensure a better future or determine how it felt about its Soviet past.

While Yeltsin secured a leading role for the presidential office in the country's political life after dissolving the parliament, he did not seek to destroy the political careers of his opponents. He allowed them to run for seats in the new State Duma and did not ban the Communist Party, condemn socialism or try to purge adherents of Soviet and communist ideas from state institutions -- most notably from law enforcement agencies or the army. In fact, the law enforcement agencies remain unreformed to this day.

Yeltsin proved to be a bad example of the "classic dictator," however much his former opponents execrate him posthumously for his anti-constitutional coup d'etat.

Despite achieving unprecedented authority, Yeltsin failed to exploit his newfound power to carry out the market reforms so necessary for the country. He did lay the foundations of a market economy and gave certain guarantees for property rights. But these were inconsistent half measures, and too many opportunities were lost along the way. Significantly, Yeltsin opened the door for state authorities to peddle influence in the market economy, thereby incorporating corruption into the machinery of state.

Most important -- and probably saddest of all -- is the fact that October 1993 did not become a turning point in Russia's history because nobody learned any lessons from it. The politicians whom Yeltsin and his supporters supposedly defeated eventually carried out their own "creeping coup" and are now constructing something reminiscent of the Soviet system. And they are again running up against the fact that such a system is poorly suited to modernization and progress.

Where have the Russian people been throughout all of this? As always they remain silent, just as many were in October 1993.

Georgy Bovt is a political analyst and hosts a radio program on City-FM.