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3 Oct, 2008 08:43

Parliament siege remembered

Russia is marking 15 years since the constitutional crisis which almost led to the civil war.

In autumn 1993, the confrontation between the executive and the legislative branches of the government reached its peak. It ended in a tank assault of the then Parliament building – the White House.

The crisis began in September, when President Boris Yeltsin dissolved the country's legislature, dominated by conservatives who were resisting reforms.

They voted to remove Yeltsin from the presidency through impeachment and barricaded themselves inside the White House.

Mass demonstrations erupted on October 2. Shortly afterwards the Ostankino TV centre was stormed.

President Yeltsin ordered the situation to be resolved through force. Tanks shelled the White House, resulting in the surrender of the resisting legislators within.

The crisis claimed at least 150 lives, becoming the worst street clashes Moscow had witnessed since Bolshevik revolution.

What Happened in October 1993?

October 3rd is the 15th anniversary of the crisis in Russia that is best remembered for the images of the burnt and wrecked “White House”, the government headquarters, which at the time was the parliament building. (The image of President Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank facing down a coup at the same site comes from two years earlier.) The violence in Moscow was heavily televised.

Audiences around the world watched breathlessly and often tearfully as Russia once again convulsed with strife and unhappiness. It resulted in 187 dead and 437 wounded (according to official data) in two days of fighting that were the culmination of a clash between Yeltsin and the country’s parliament. It was one of the key moments in modern Russian history and its effects are still with us today.

The Buildup

The years immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union were hard, full of social upheaval and economic reforms, referred to bitterly as “shock therapy,” that led to hyperinflation, burdensome new taxes, a low standard of living and discontent. The conservative parliament, made up of the Supreme Council and the Congress of People’s Deputies, quickly turned against the president’s reformist policies.

In March 1993, the Congress of People’s Deputies attempted unsuccessfully to remove Yeltsin from office. The intransigence of the Supreme Council finally led Yeltsin to dissolve it on September 21 and throw out the Constitution, which he was in violation of. New parliamentary elections were scheduled for December 21.

The legislators were not easily dispensed with. They refused to leave the White House. Speaker of the People’s Congress Ruslan Khasbulatov accused Yeltsin of attempting a coup d’etat. Vice President Alexander Rutskoi arrived the night of September 21 and declared himself acting president. The Russian Constitutional Court ruled the next day that Yeltsin could be impeached for his violation of the Constitution.
Nonetheless, the Rutskoi government was never recognized internationally. A two-week standoff followed between Rutskoi and Yeltsin, who maintained control over the workings of the Russian state. Communist and nationalist forces (although not the Communist Party itself) supported the parliament.

The Breaking Point

The parliament gained popular support as the crisis continued. The Russian Army and the international community remained behind Yeltsin. Tensions rose to the point that rioting broke out in Moscow on September 28 and was put down in a bloody confrontation with police special forces. On September 30, the first barricades went up on major streets in downtown Moscow. The following day, about 600 heavily armed supporters joined the parliamentarians at the White House. The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church mediated between the sides.

On October 3, police lost control of the demonstrators and an armed conflict began. Yeltsin declared a state of emergency. Rutskoi addressed supporters from the balcony of the White House and encouraged them to take over the television center in Ostankino, in north of the city. It was the nerve center of the national broadcasting system. Pro-parliamentary forces took over the Moscow mayor’s office and began moving toward Ostankino. “I was standing in front of the Moscow mayor's office… The space around me was filled with an infuriated crowd that looked ready for violence. Suddenly a heavy truck burst through the glass doors of the Moscow municipal offices, smashing everything in its way. People in the crowd cheered, hailing the destruction,” a journalist recorded.

“I went downtown to defend democracy [Yeltsin],” a resident of the Ostankino neighbourhood later recalled wryly, “and when I got home, my wife told me there had been a shootout in front of our house!” The television center was defended by forces from the Russian Interior Ministry. Sixty-two people, including four journalists, were killed in the battle, and another journalist died of a heart attack at the scene. The calm and dignified demeanor of the state television’s newscaster as rebels occupied the studio and shut down his broadcast is remembered by some to this day. Government forces recaptured the facilities within hours and Prime Minister Egor Gaidar made an on-air appeal for support for the president.

That night, the Russian Army surrounded the White House. Tanks began to shell the building in the early morning. Two more Russian journalists were killed. “Crazy people were standing in the streets and on the bridge by the White House, watching the proceedings, like watching some American police serial on TV… There were snipers, positioned on the rooftops, taking potshots at people passing by. The hospitals couldn't cope with all the injured and dead. Police were arresting police and other officials. It was complete chaos,” one eyewitness recounted. In the early evening, government forces took the White House floor by floor, facing armed opposition but allowing those who were willing to leave peacefully to do so. The police were less tolerant towards them. The Moscow City Prosecutor reported that over 6000 people were taken into custody between October 3 and 6. That figure is considered to be hugely underestimated.

The Aftermath

The revolt was over. A curfew was declared from 11:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m., and over 10,000 troops were brought in to enforce it. Police protected the deserted White House from looters. Rutskoi, Khasbulatov and other parliament leaders were arrested. They would be pardoned in February 1994. Chairman of the Constitutional Court Valery Zorkin was forced from his position, but quickly reinstated as a judge. He would be reelected chairman of the court in 2003. The White House was quickly repaired, at a cost of $300 million.

Yeltsin had survived the challenge to his presidency thanks to the support of the police and army, and at the cost of the democratically elected parliament and popular will. It was a turning point for him and the country. The events that took place 15 years ago are responsible for much of the structure of the Russian state today. The president moved rapidly to consolidate his position. A new constitution (replacing one written in 1978) was adopted by a referendum on December 12 with 54.5 percent of voters approving it; 54.8 percent of those eligible turned out at the polls. The new constitution gave the president tremendous new powers at the expense of the legislature. The Supreme Council and the Congress of People’s Deputies were replaced by the State Duma and Federation Council. The government would remain essential as Yeltsin formed it at that time until President Vladimir Putin instituted reforms to “strengthen the vertical of power” in 2004.