Russian constitutional crisis of 1993

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The Russian constitutional crisis of 1993 began in earnest on September 21, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin dissolved the country's parliament, which was increasingly opposed his moves to consolidate sweeping powers in the president's hands and embark on widely unpopular neoliberal reforms. He was not allowed to do this under the then-functioning constitution). By illegal decree, he ordered a referendum on a new constitution.

The parliament then deemed Yeltsin's presidency unconstitutional. In open rebellion of the Yeltsin regime, it appointed its own acting president. On October 2-October 3, a mass uprising against Boris Yeltsin erupted in Moscow in support of parliament. Russia was on the brink of civil war. Tensions built quickly, and the representatives barricaded themselves in the parliament building, the "Russian White House." After ten days, Yeltsin fell back on his support in the army seized the White House by force. The "second October Revolution" was crushed.

Dozens of people had been killed and hundreds had been wounded after the most deadly street fighting in Moscow since the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917. This episode served to prove that Russia is not a parliamentary system, but rather a presidential regime, with substantial power in the president's hands.

Origins of the crisis

The intensifying executive-legislative power struggle

Yeltsin's neoliberal reform program took effect on January 2, 1992. The results were felt immediately as 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. Quickly a number of politicians began to distance themselves from the program.

Throughout 1992 growing opposition to Yeltsin's policies came from those bureaucrats that were worried about the condition of Russian industry, as well as from the regional leaders that wanted more independence from Moscow. Even Russia's vice president, Aleksandr Rutskoy, denounced the Yeltsin program as "economic genocide."1 The chairman or speaker of the Russian Supreme Soviet (the standing legislature), Ruslan Khasbulatov, also came out in opposition to the reforms, despite still claiming to support Yeltsin's overall goals. The leaders of the oil-rich republics such as Tatarstan and Bashkiria were even calling for full independence from Russia. Many of those demands were to find their representatives in parliament itself.

Under the terms of the constitutional amendments passed in late 1991, the special powers of decree were set to expire by the end of 1992. Yeltsin, of course, awaiting implementation of his privatization program, demanded that parliament reinstate his decree powers, but parliament was unwilling (only parliament had the authority to replace or amend the constitution).

Throughout 1992, Yeltsin wrestled with the parliament for control over government and government policy. During its December 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 neoliberal economist Yegor Gaidar, the widely despised architect of Russia's "shock therapy" market liberalizations, as prime minister. They 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 form shutting down.2

In an angry, demagogic speech the next day on December 10, Yeltsin deemed the congress as a "fortress of conservative and reactionary forces," among other populist appeals. 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 attempt to browbeat 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. Blocked by the legislature, the president called a referendum on a constitution for April 11.

The eight Congress of People's Deputies (the country's highest legislative body, form which the Supreme Soviet members were drawn) opened on March 10 with a strong attack on the president by Khasbulatov, who accused Yeltsin of acting unconstitutionally. In mid-March 1993, 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 Gerashcehnko, chairman of the central bank, and three other officials; this was in accordance with the decision of the eight 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.

The president's response was dramatic. On March 20 Yeltsin addressed the nation directly to declare that he intended to introduce 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 bitterly attacked the parliament, accusing the deputies of trying to restore the Soviet-era order. Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoy, a key Yeltsin opponent, condemned Yeltsin's grab for special powers. After the Constitutional Court the Constitutional Court ruled that Yeltsin had indeed acted unconstitutionally, Yeltsin backed down.

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 Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin conceded that he had made mistakes and reached out to swing voters in parliament. Yeltsin narrowly survived an impeachment vote by the Congress of People's Deputies on March 28. The legislators could not muster a two-thirds majority to impeach the president, falling just 72 short of the 689 votes necessary.

When it became known that Khasbulatov had attempted to cut a deal with the president that involved abandoning the April 25 referendum and simultaneous elections for president and the parliament in November 1993, the congress turned on him, and one-third of the deputies voted in favor of his removal.

The referendum would go ahead, but since the impeachment vote failed, the Congress of People's Deputies 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 percent of the whole electorate, rather than 50 percent 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 of April 25. In the vote 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 appeal to the people over the heads of the legislature.

The constitutional convention

In June 1993, Yeltsin of a special constitutional convention to examine the draft constitution that he had presented in April. This convention was designed to circumvent the parliament, which was working on its own draft constitution. The parliament failed to approve the draft, however.

In an attempt to outmaneuver the parliament, Yeltsin decreed the creation a "special constitutional convention" in June 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 700 representatives adopted a draft constitution on July 12 that envisaged a bicameral legislature and the dissolution of the congress. The Supreme Soviet, the standing legislature, 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. Because the new constitution would dissolve the congress, there was little likelihood that it would vote itself into oblivion. The convention ultimately approved a compromise draft constitution in July 1993, incorporating some aspects of the parliament's draft.

The parliament was active in July, while the president was on vacation, and passed a raft 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.

Yeltsin's suspension of parliament

The president launched his offensive on September 1 when he attempted to suspend key adversary Aleksandr Rutskoy as vice president. Rutskoi, 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 Rutskoi 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 neoliberal 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.

In late September 1993, Yeltsin responded to the impasse in legislative-executive relations by repeating his announcement of a constitutional referendum, but this time he followed the announcement by dissolving the parliament and announcing new legislative elections for December. On September 21, 1993, Yeltsin decreed parliament dissolved and announced parliamentary elections for December. He also scrapped the constitution, replacing it with another that gave him near-monarchic 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 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. 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 U.S., but this has left him open to charges in Russia of being an agent of foreign interests and of groveling before Western imperialism.

There were at least some calls in the U.S. asking Washington to reexamine this relationship. In November 1993, for example, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times wrote:

It is time to recognize that giving Yeltsin a blank check is disastrous for both Russian and U.S. foreign policy. Once again, a faithful U.S. client is turning out to be a monster. Each uncritical concession to Yeltsin only encourages his desperate struggle for personal power.3

The assault on the Russian White House

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Tanks bombard the Russian White House at the behest of Boris Yeltsin in 1993

Rutskoi 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.

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, known as the "Russian White House."

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.

Moreover, Yeltsin sparked popular unrest by dissolving a parliament increasingly opposed to his neoliberal economic reforms. Between September 21-24, the general atmosphere changed in favor 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.

The demonstrators were protesting against the new and terrible living conditions under Yeltsin, who was increasingly regarded as a scoundrel. Since 1989 gross domestic product had declined by half. Corruption was rampant, violent crime was mushrooming, medical services were collapsing, food and fuel were increasingly scarce and life expectancy was falling for all but a tiny handful of the population. Outside Moscow, the Russian masses overall were confused and disorganized. Nonetheless, some of them did try to fight back. Sporadic strikes took place in different regions of Russia.

On September 28, Moscow saw the first bloody clashes between the special police and anti-Yeltsin demonstrators. This repression of the mass demonstrations in Moscow had a comparable effect to that that meted out by the French police to the students in the May 1968 rebellion 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 was built.

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 stormed the police cordon around the White House territory (where the Russian parliament was barricaded). Crowds supporting parliament also seized the Moscow City Mayor offices, overrunning pro-Yeltsin forces.

Aleksandr Rutskoi, barricaded inside the White House, hailed the people's efforts to take to the street's against what was increasingly being seen as Yeltsin's Bonapartist dictatorship. Rutskoi greeted the crowds from the White House balcony, and urged them to go on to seize the national television center 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.

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. The political impasses developed into an armed conflict in the afternoon of October 3 after Moscow police failed to control a demonstration near the White House.

Between October 2-4, the position of the army was the deciding factor. The military equivocated for several hours about how to respond to Yeltsin's call for action. By this time dozens of people had been killed and hundreds had been wounded. Many officers and especially rank-and-file soldiers had no sympathy for Yeltsin, but the supporters of the parliament did not send any emissaries to the barracks to recruit lower-ranking officer corps and made the fatal mistake of attempting to deliberate only among high-ranking military officials who already had close ties to parliamentary leaders. Rutzkoy, as a former general, appealed to his ex-colleagues. But in the end, a more prevailing bulk of the generals were deeply involved in the clientage and patrimonialism of the Yeltsin regime and did not want take their chances with a Rutzkoy-Khasbulatov regime. Some generals had promised back the Supreme Soviet, but at the last moment they moved over to Yeltsin's side.

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

On October 4, army tanks began to shell the White House. By sunrise, October 5, the army Russian army encircled the parliament building. By late afternoon the charred upper floors of the building bore testimony to the viciousness of the conflict.

Tanks were firing into the building, portions of which began to burn. 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 Rutskoi and Khasbulatov, in the end were taken away in buses. By mid-afternoon, popular resistance in the streets was completely suppressed, barring an occasional sniper's fire.

Crushing the "second October Revolution" cost hundreds of lives. Police said, on October 8, that 187 had died in the conflict and 437 had been wounded. It had been a close call; Yeltsin owed his victory to the military, the former KGB, and the Ministry of Interior Forces-- 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. (For example, General Pavel Grachev, who had demonstrated his loyalty during the constitutional showdown with the parliament in October 1993, became a key political figure, despite many years of charges that Grachev was linked to corruption within the Russian military. [1])

This brutal episode served to prove that Russia is not a parliamentary democracy, but rather a presidential regime, with substantial power in the president's hands. Although Russia has a prime minister who heads a cabinet and directs the administration, it system is an example of presidentialism with the cover of a presidential prime minister, not an effective semipresidential constitutional model. The premier is appointed and freely dismissed by the president.

The brutal episode was also 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.4 In the end, this was a battle of competing legitimacy of the executive and the legislature won ultimately by whether the president or the parliament could muster the access to the instruments of coercion.5

Yeltsin's consolidation of power

In the weeks following the storming of the Russian White House, Yeltsin issued a barrage of presidential decrees intended to consolidate his position. On October 5, Yeltsin banned political leftist and nationalist parties and newspapers that had supported the parliament. In an address to the nation on October 6, Yeltsin also called on those regional councils that had opposed him--by far the majority--to disband. Valery Zorkin, chairman of the Constitutional Court, was forced to resign. The chairman of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions, formerly dominated by trade unions, was also sacked, and the president took the opportunity to deprive trade unions of many of their administrative functions so as to whittle away their direct working ties to their rank-and-file membership.

Yeltsin decreed, on October 12, that both houses of parliament would be elected in December. On October 15, he ordered that a popular referendum be held in December on a new constitution. Rutskoi and Khasbulatov were charged on October 15 with "organizing mass disorders" and imprisoned.

"Russia needs order," Yeltsin told the Russian people in a television broadcast in November in introducing his new draft of the constitution, which was to be put to a referendum on December 12. The new basic law would concentrate sweeping powers in the hands of the president. The bicameral legislature, to sit for only two years, was restricted in crucial areas. The president could choose the prime minister even if the parliament objected and could appoint the military leadership without parliamentary approval. He would head and appoint the members of a new, more powerful security council. If a vote of no confidence in the government was passed, the president would be enabled to keep it in office for three months and could dissolve the parliament if it repeated the vote. The president could veto any bill passed by a simple majority in the lower house, after which a two-thirds majority would be required for the legislation to be passed. The president could not be impeached for contravening the constitution. The central bank would become independent, but the president would need to approval of the State Duma to appoint the bank's governor, who would thereafter be independent of the parliament. Most political observers regarded the draft constitution as shaped by and for Yeltsin and perhaps unlikely to survive him.

December 12, 1993 Duma elections

Everything appeared to be going according to the wishes of the would-be Russian strongman until the elections for a new Duma on December 12, when Yeltsin won only a half victory. Yeltsin managed to push through a new constitution last December giving the president virtually unlimited authority to issue decrees. But the parliament elected on the same day (on a turnout of about 53%) delivered a stunning rebuke to Yeltsin's neoliberal economic program. Candidates identified with Yeltsin's neoliberal program were overwhelmed by a huge protest vote, the bulk of which was divided between the communists and nationalists drawing their support from petit-bourgeois elements. As expected, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation won the largest voting bloc in parliament. But the most surprising insurgent group proved to be the Liberal Democratic Party (whose program was neither liberal nor democratic). Its leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, alarmed many observers abroad with his neo-fascist, chauvinistic declarations.

Notes

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1Celestine Bohlen, "Yeltsin Deputy Calls Reforms 'Economic Genocide,'" New York Times, February 9, 1992.
2The Central Bank's efforts got in the way of pro-Yeltsin, Western-oriented leaders were seeking to carry out a decisive neoliberal economic transformation of Russia. They undermined the regime of fiscal austerity that the Yeltsin government was attempting to pursue. See, e.g., Thomas F. Remington, Politics in Russia (New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc., 2002), p. 50. .
3Robert Scheer, "Giving Yeltsin a Blank Check is Disastrous," Los Angeles Times, November 5, 1993.
4Since the release of Argentine political scientist Juan Linz's 1985 influential essay "Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy: Does it Make a Difference?" the argument that presidentialism is less likely to sustain stable democratic regimes has gained widespread currency in Western comparative politics literature. According to Linz, conflict is always latent between the president and the legislature due to competing claims to legitimacy derived from the same source: electoral mandates from the very same body of citizens. Thus, a conflict can escalate dramatically since it cannot be resolved through rules, procedures, negotiations, or compromise.
5See, e.g., Stephen White, "Russia: Presidential Leadership under Yeltsin," in Ray Taras, ed., Postcommunist Presidents (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 57-61.