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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Did What Had to Be Done

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October 1993. What really happened back then in Moscow, in Russia?

 Did President Boris Yeltsin stand up in defense of democracy and reforms or did he merely defend himself and act to preserve his own power? Even today, 10 years after the events of October 1993, many are convinced that Yeltsin was protecting himself. I, however, do not believe this to be the case.

When Boris Nikolayevich showed me presidential decree No. 1400 (before signing it into force), which ordered the dissolution of the Congress of People's Deputies and the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation, I immediately became very tense and cautiously stated that events could take an unpredictable turn, as not all the ground work had been done for implementation of the decree. The decree, while providing for elections to the State Duma (which was to replace the lower house of the Supreme Soviet), contained no provision for elections to the upper house of the new legislature, for the preparation of a new Constitution, or for other measures to restore the integrity of the state.

But the source of crisis was quite clear. The confrontation between Yeltsin and the opposition -- led by the Supreme Soviet leadership -- already apparent in 1992 at the Sixth and Seventh Congresses of People's Deputies, had reached its culmination (although the real climax had been expected in December 1993, at the next Congress of People's Deputies).

In 1992, deputies had desperately tried and finally succeeded in removing the first post-Soviet Russian government, led by Yegor Gaidar, and in early 1993 deputies tried to impeach Yeltsin. Instead of forging ahead with reforms, the president and the government wasted precious time on the high-stakes battle with the leadership of the Supreme Soviet.

At the heart of the conflict, of course, was the issue of who really held power: the president or the Supreme Soviet. But beyond this, there were also fundamental disagreements over economic reforms. Unfortunately, things were aggravated by the ambitions of Supreme Soviet Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov and Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, and by the old Constitution of the Russian Federation, which had been amended by deputies more than 600 times in the space of three years and which effectively gave rise to a diarchy.

Under the old Constitution, the president was the head of state and head of the executive branch, but the Congress of People's Deputies was empowered to consider any matter within the competence of the Russian Federation. This ambiguity fueled the war of egos and attempts to subordinate the president to the Congress. The president had no legal means to alter the situation -- only the Congress had the power to amend the Constitution or adopt a new Constitution; only the Congress had the right to conduct a referendum; and only it could impeach the president, while the president had no legal recourse.

Nonetheless, the president and his team succeeded in getting the Congress to agree to conduct a referendum in April 1993, which contained four questions: 1) Do you trust President Yeltsin? 2) Do you approve of the president and government's socioeconomic policy? 3) Should there be pre-term presidential elections? 4) Should there be pre-term parliamentary elections?

I well remember Yeltsin's agitation when the special government phone at my dacha rang at 5:30 a.m. and Boris Nikolayevich asked me what the result was. The result, as the president's team had expected, was victory for the president and government. Da-Da-Net-Da -- that was how the electorate had responded. Immediately after the referendum, intensive work was started on drafting a new Constitution, for which purpose a Constitutional Assembly was convened. However, the opposition ensconced in the Supreme Soviet boycotted the Assembly and, showing complete disdain for the results of the referendum, launched a new attack on the president and his reforms. Taking advantage of their prerogative to amend the Constitution, deputies started preparing changes to limit the powers of the president -- as well as amendments to the press law restricting freedom of speech, and to the budget, going overboard on social payments.

These initiatives were to be approved at the next Congress in December 1993. The situation was critical: Either the deputies' actions had to be forestalled or we waited until December when there would be a social explosion that could lead to civil war or the establishment of a dictatorship. The idea of a reconciliation between Yeltsin and Khasbulatov was already out of the question: They did not trust each other any longer. Khasbulatov had taken to directly insulting the president (sometimes in a rather vulgar fashion). There was no hope of reconciliation through the offices of the Constitutional Court either. Many of the judges, including the chairman Valery Zorkin, had been drawn into the political process and had lost their sense of balance, clearly siding with one camp.

For the president, there was only one course of action: to disband the parliament and call new elections. However, the Supreme Soviet leadership did not obey Yeltsin's decree and attempted to conduct an extraordinary 10th Congress, at which, based on a ruling of the Constitutional Court, the decision was taken to dismiss Yeltsin. This was done in gross violation of Congress regulations, as those deputies -- mainly Yeltsin supporters -- who did not show up at the Congress were suspended. The Constitutional Court's ruling was made with equally gross violations of the law. Practically all the decisions of the Congress were illegal, but the ringleaders in the White House were signalling the start of a protracted battle.

Moscow was leading a relatively peaceful existence at the time and Muscovites did not pay much attention to what was going on in the White House. However, events took a dramatic turn when armed men appeared in the White House from the hardline nationalist Union of Officers and Alexander Barkashov's Russian National Unity, as well as fighters from the Baltics and Transdnestr. Armed "representatives" of the White House turned up at several ministries and prevented them from working. Of course, in this situation measures had to be undertaken to protect Muscovites, and so the White House was sealed off by the OMON and special forces.

Breaking off his trip to the United States, Patriarch Alexy II returned to Moscow, unhappy with decree No. 1400 and very concerned about the turn of events. Together with Metropolitan Kirill, I organized a meeting between the patriarch and the president and they quickly agreed that talks should be held in Danilovsky Monastery between representatives of the president and the White House. Yeltsin charged me, Oleg Soskovets and Yury Luzhkov with representing him.

The talks got off to a good start: In exchange for lifting the blockade on the White House and restoring normal working conditions, the Supreme Soviet representatives, Ramazan Abdulatipov and Venyamin Sokolov, agreed to surrender the White House's weapons cache. However, with the arrival of Khasbulatov's deputy Yury Voronin on Oct. 1, things took a turn for the worse, with ultimatums being issued for Yeltsin to restore normal working conditions in the Supreme Soviet and Congress of People's Deputies.

This dragged on until Oct. 3, when "defenders" of the White House broke through the police cordon, OMON were killed en masse, and armed detachments made their way to Ostankino where a serious battle erupted.

The president had no alternative but to call in the army, whose first port of call was Ostankino, in order to put down the insurrection. By this time, Channel One had gone dead.

On the night of Oct. 3, the issue of putting down the armed insurrection by the opposition ensconced in the White House, led by Rutskoi and Khasbulatov, was discussed. The Security Council met and the decision was taken to storm the White House using Interior Ministry forces and special forces on the morning of Oct. 4, in order to arrest the ringleaders and organizers of the revolt. On the streets of Moscow a different battle was playing out: Rallies for democracy. On Tverskaya, a rally was led by Gaidar; on Red Square, my deputy Vyacheslav Volkov led a rally, having beforehand borrowed a Russian flag from my office.

The military operation started in the morning and continued for just about the whole day (viewed by thousands of curious Muscovites, who thronged the bridge and embankment in front of the White House). They saw the rebels being led from the White House and taken off in buses to Lefortovo Prison. Thus ended the tragic events of October 1993. I believe that 146 innocent people, who were in no way involved in the events, were killed.

But life went on. We had to prepare the country for elections, and it was decided to conduct a referendum simultaneously on a new Constitution. I was put in charge of a working commission to prepare the draft Constitution. The draft itself was basically ready, having been approved by the Constitutional Assembly on July 12, but we had to make some adjustments to take into account the conflict that had just occurred, and to exclude the possibility of something similar happening again the future. By this time, it had already been decided that the upper chamber of the Federal Assembly, the Federation Council, would be organized along regional lines.

Every day up to the Dec. 12 was given over to preparation for the elections and referendum, and on Sunday Dec. 12, the Constitution was adopted in a national referendum. At the same time, both chambers of the new parliament were elected, and a little later on the Constitutional Court, with new appointments, started work.

Today, there are 10 years between us and those events and I can say with conviction that what Yeltsin did in October 1993 had to be done. We managed to avoid a dangerous confrontation, and acquired a new Constitution providing Russia with all fundamental rights and freedoms and laying the foundations for a new state. We were able to push ahead with reforms, the results of which make themselves felt with each passing year, as budget revenues grow and household incomes rise. Elections are held regularly not only at the federal level, but also at the regional and local levels. The Constitution defines the role of local government, investing it with maximum freedom. Russia has become a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, giving Russian citizens the right to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

It is a mistake, however, to think that everything good in our lives is somehow linked to the activities of President Vladimir Putin. The good things, I am sure, have their roots in what was achieved and the foundations that were laid in the early 1990s.

Of course, it has not been clear sailing these past 10 years. The really low points have been the wars in Chechnya; the "union" between the authorities and the oligarchs starting in 1996, which fundamentally altered the state system and the public's attitude toward the authorities; restrictions on media freedoms and the infamous "power vertical," allowing the bureaucracy and financial groups to seize power.

However, encouragement can be taken from the fact that the development of democracy and a free market economy is moving forward. I want to believe that the current administration's retreat from democratic and liberal principles is only temporary and that we will live in a law-based democratic federal state, as proclaimed in the 1993 Constitution.

Sergei Filatov, presidential chief of staff from 1993 to 1996, is chairman of the executive committee of the Congress of Intelligentsia of the Russian Federation.