Russia marks 20 years since Yeltsin shelled parliament

AFP , Thursday 3 Oct 2013

A survey conducted by a Kremlin-linked polling centre found that 26 percent of respondents back Yeltsin's actions while 16 percent still fondly remember the Communists

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin (Photo: Reuters)

Russia is quietly marking the 20th anniversary of the deadly shelling of Communist hardliners in parliament -- clashes that steered the country away from its Soviet path.

The dramatic events of October 3-4 in which up to 200 people died pitted the late Boris Yeltsin -- a popular president who symbolised Russians' nascent democratic ambitions -- against Soviet sympathisers who blamed reforms for widespread economic malaise.

A constitutional crisis that split power between the nostalgic parliamentarians and the untested Yeltsin left people uncertain about their future and the nuclear-armed power in danger of slipping into chaos.

The 1993 standoff eventually spilled over into two days of street fighting in which the army crucially backed the democratic camp.

But Yeltsin's decision to order tanks to pummel his rivals in parliament -- an imposing building on the Moscow River known as the White House that now houses the government -- stripped the democratic movement of its youthful enthusiasm and leaves Russians ambivalent to this day.

A survey conducted by the Kremlin-linked VTsIOM polling centre found that 26 percent of respondents back Yeltsin's actions while 16 percent still fondly remember the Communists.

The rest said they were either too young at the time to remember or simply had no opinion about the events.

The old guard was spearheaded by Yeltsin's vice president Alexander Rutskoi -- a gruff general who once fought in Afghanistan and portrayed himself as a populist patriot -- and the tough-talking parliament speaker Ruslan Khazbulatov.

The pair looked on with despair as Yeltsin entrusted a team of young Western-backed economists to chart Russia's post-Soviet revival through painful market measures that left many destitute.

The duo's patience snapped on October 3 when they appeared on a White House balcony and called on the crowds to storm the Ostankino television centre because of the media's perceived support for the pro-democracy drive.

Dozens of open-back trucks filled with well-armed supporters of Rutskoi and Khazbulatov then sped off for the first clash of that fateful 48-hour span.

No one still knows for certain who provided the White House rebels with weapons. But the hardline pair say they have no regrets.

"We are accused of having done everything to create conditions that could spark a civil war," Russian media quoted Rutskoi as saying.

"But in reality, we did everything possible and impossible to prevent this from happening."

Khazbulatov was even more fervent as he recalled events that spelled the end of his political career.

"We should have been firmer -- much firmer -- considering what the other side was doing," he argued.

The October 4 storming of parliament that resolved the conflict was preceded by Yeltsin's attempts to appease displeasure with the shock economic therapy prescribed by reformist ministers such as Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais.

Yeltsin fired the largely-despised Gaidar in December 1992 as part of a deal with the Communists to hold a referendum on a new constitution that would clearly delineate authority between parliament and the Kremlin.

But lawmakers refused to debate a new constitution because it might have handed the president new powers and instead organised a national referendum on whether Yeltsin should simply step down.

The Russian president won by a comfortable margin -- an outcome that left the parliament's legitimacy in question and allowed Yeltsin to issue a September 1993 decree calling for "gradual constitutional reform."

It was then that Rutskoi and Khazbulatov dug in with their armed supporters at the White House -- what now many view as the old order's last stand.

"For Russia, October 1993 was a turning point," liberal journalist Leonid Radzikhovsky wrote in the Russian government's Rossiyskaya Gazeta daily.

"The courts should have decided who was responsible for the small civil war of October 3-4," he wrote. "But there was no trial."

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