WORLD

TENSE STANDOFF IN MOSCOW

October 11 1993
WORLD

TENSE STANDOFF IN MOSCOW

October 11 1993

TENSE STANDOFF IN MOSCOW

WORLD

Grimacing into the sleet gusting across the nearby Moscow River, Mikhail Vorotsov cradled his machine-gun and stamped his booted feet, chilled by four hours of tense inactivity. Nearby, two grey-haired women tended a campfire on the grounds of the Russian legislature. But they had no warming cup of tea to offer the 23-year-old policeman. In the 20 m separating Vorotsov and that makeshift campsite last week lay a political fault line that could split the Russian federation. On one side were about 3,000 soldiers and policemen sent by Russian President Boris Yeltsin to surround the legislature. Inside that cordon of guns and razor-wire coils was an opposing armed force: a few hundred conservative legislators and their supporters— the two cooks among them—who were defying Yeltsin’s Sept. 21 dissolution of parliament. The tense standoff continued into the weekend. Under the mediation of the Russian Orthodox Church, the two sides met in a Moscow monastery while small groups of pro-Communist demonstrators clashed violently with police in the city centre. “I hope they settle this,” said Vorotsov. “Winter is coming and we should all be doing something useful like gathering potatoes.” Ordinary Russians, in fact, appeared less concerned with the power struggle in Moscow than with the effects of early snowfalls on state-farm harvests and vegetables grown on small, private plots. But drivers in the Russian capital became entangled in the crisis when security forces used city streetcleaning trucks to seal off the roads around the darkened legislative building that is called the White House. Cars diverted around those blue-and-orange trucks caused massive traffic problems elsewhere—prompting one Moscow newspaper to note that 32 people had died in road accidents in the six days af-

ter Yeltsin’s move against the legislature. In the preceding six days, the paper added, there were only six traffic fatalities on Moscow streets. And as Western leaders worried that the confrontation in Moscow might end in a bloody armed clash, motorists stuck in a congealed mass of military vehicles, buses and ubiquitous Ladas were sourly

exchanging the week’s road lore. It would not be soldiers who attacked the White House, the refrain went, but drivers enraged by the additional traffic chaos.

In any event, the stalemate at the legislature appeared to erode the initiative that

Yeltsin seized when he disbanded parliament and ordered that elections be held in December for a new, more representative assembly. While the Russian president could engage in psychological warfare and station armored personnel carriers within sight of the White House—where the defenders have threatened to shoot to kill without warning if the security forces approached—his advisers all but ruled out

a direct attack. All sides knew an assault on the 17-storey building, which had a rooftop snipers’ nest among its improvised defences, would result in a massive loss of life that would clearly weaken Yeltsin’s support at home and abroad.

BORIS YELTSIN LOSES HIS REFORM MOMENTUM AS THE RERELLION IN PARLIAMENT DIVIDES RUSSIANS

Recent opinion polls show that the president retains the confidence of roughly 60 per cent of his fellow countrymen—with only 15 per cent supporting the embattled deputies. Certainly, few Russians accept the rebellious legislature’s assertion that Vice-President

Alexander Rutskoi has now assumed Yeltsin’s powers. Even Rutskoi’s mother scoffed at that claim. “He can be president only if Yeltsin signs a decree letting him,” said Zina Rutskoi, from her tiny apartment in Kursk, the family’s home town 500 km south of Moscow. “How can he command anything?” But news photographs showing Rutskoi inside the candle-lit parliament, dressed in a

warm-up jacket and with a submachine-gun slung over his shoulder, helped rally support among conservatives outside the wire who oppose Yeltsin’s economic reforms. Prominent among them are some powerful regional leaders who urged Yeltsin to rescind his decree dissolving the legislature.

Although the renegade deputies in Moscow were living on cold snacks in a building where the toilets were not working, they could take satisfaction from the fact that Siberian regional leaders had invited them to relocate in the industrial centre of Novosibirsk. There, representatives from a region rich in oil, gas and other natural resources are threatening to turn the area into a republic unless Yeltsin repeals his decrees against the legislature. Said Aman Tuleyev, chairman of the local council in the Kuzbass coalmining district: “We need to start the process of decentralization from Moscow.” Unless Yeltsin bows to that demand—and also agrees to joint presidential and legislative elections—the northerners are threatening to block the vital Trans-Siberian railway.

Tuleyev and other Siberian leaders stressed that they were not planning to take a region larger than the continental United States out of Russia. But in Siberia, as in other parts of a country that sprawls over 11 time zones, there is growing discontent with a distant central government that siphons off

half the local tax revenues and provides few services in return. Novosibirsk officials say that new Siberian republic or not, they are now ready to join the one-third of Russia’s regions that have already stopped forwarding tax money to Moscow. Said Novosibirsk administrator Vitaly Mukha: “Reforms are supposed to improve people’s lives, but they are not working. We have virtually given up on the centre and decided to do things on our own.”

Yeltsin cannot ignore such angry voices from the provinces. In fact, over the past few months he and his supporters have been courting regional leaders with inducements ranging from more autonomy to a greater share of tax revenues. In contrast to those offered carrots, an enfeebled Kremlin now has few sticks with which to enforce Moscow rules. To be sure, Yeltsin has carefully cultivated the support of the armed forces and security services through measures ranging from daily access for Defence Minister Pavel Grachev to pay raises for the rank and file. But according to Western defence analysts stationed in Moscow, those moves simply reduce the chances of the army intervening against Yeltsin.

As a result, Yeltsin and his advisers are reluctantly reconsidering such counterdemands by his parliamentary foes as holding presidential elections,

now scheduled for next spring, along with the legislature’s. That potential double bill would increase the workload of observers from Elections Canada who have volunteered to scrutinize the electoral process. While welcoming Canadian participation, the deputy director of Moscow’s Canada-United States Institute suggested that Russia needed a longer lead time if the elections are to mean anything. Said Viktor Borisyuk: “In a real democracy, three months would be more than enough. But in our country, that time frame is ridiculous as the political parties are unready.”

In the days immediately following Yeltsin’s decisive—if unconstitutional—attempt to end Moscow’s power struggle, the Russian president appeared to be firmly in charge of setting his country’s course. But to the chilled policemen standing guard outside the White House last week, Russian politics had clearly reverted to a more familiar state: muddled, divisive and potentially dangerous.

MALCOLM GRAY in Moscow