AFTER BLOODY MONDAY
Street clashes between riot police and pro-Communist demonstrators armed with bricks and steel bars. Red-andgreen tracer bullets flashing through the night air as armed rebels attempt to seize Moscow’s national broadcasting centre. A state of emergency in the Russian capital and then, finally, soldiers attacking the legislature and crushing hardline opponents of President Boris Yeltsin. To many Russians there was a bleak, historical inevitability to the violence that left hundreds dead and wounded in Moscow last week. After two draining years of dvoevlasti (dual power), sheer force had decided a struggle for political supremacy: tanks firing 125-mm shells reduced much of the 17-storey parliament building, the White House, to charred ruins. But at home and abroad, Yeltsin’s supporters and critics alike were uncertain about the lasting effects of the latest October upheavals. Was Russia once again under a dictatorship, however benevolent? And would
Yeltsin’s victory in Moscow check—or hasten—the country’s slide towards political disintegration?
Western leaders who have endorsed Yeltsin as Russia’s best hope for democracy and economic reform watched nervously last week as his government shut down Pravda and 12 other hardline or nationalist newspapers. And in a replay of his actions after the collapse of the 1991 putsch in Moscow, Yeltsin banned the Communist party as well as nine other extremist or nationalist groups. But to allay the fears of concerned observers and to firm up his backing for the difficult tasks ahead, the Russian president went on national television two days after the storming of the White House. Appearing tense and stiff but speaking firmly, he insisted that his use of force had in fact preserved the country’s fragile democracy and extinguished the flame of civil war. Yeltsin stressed that his rule by decree was temporary, a rough but necessary detour on the country’s rocky road from communism. And in a related message that was clearly meant to address Western fears about renewed dictatorship in Russia, Yeltsin promised that elections for a new state assembly to replace the dismissed parliament would take place as scheduled on Dec. 11 and 12.
Publicly, Western leaders supported Yeltsin’s use of force. British Prime Minister John Major even argued that the Russian leader had shown admirable restraint in not sending in the tanks before he did. But some keen followers of Russian affairs worried openly that the West may be repeating the mistake that it had made with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: pinning its hopes on a single individual. Said Conservative MP David Howell, chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee: “We should back Mr. Yeltsin because he is the path to democracy and stability, and not because we think he is a nice guy.” And some analysts questioned whether Yeltsin’s defeat of Communist hardliners would in fact translate into greater democratization. “We may see the emergence of some kind of benevolent dictatorship,” said Yuri Maltsev, a former Gorbachev adviser who now teaches economics at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis. “I believe Yeltsin will use his victory to try to gather more central power. There will be less democracy, not more democracy.”
BORIS YELTSIN HAS ROUTED HIS FOES, BUT CAN HE GET RUSSIA ON THE ROAD TO RECOVERY?
Even with smoke from the White House siege still hanging in the air, Yeltsin tried to calm the passions that could make governing all the more difficult in the aftermath of Bloody Monday. With more than 1,200 of his toughest adversaries locked away and awaiting prosecution, he urged his fellow Russians not to think in terms of winners and losers. The official death toll from the two days of fighting stood at 193 at the end of the week. Declaring Oct. 7 a national day of mourning for the dead on both sides of the conflict, Yeltsin said of the casualties: “However different their convictions may have been, all of them were Russia’s children. It is our common tragedy.” But those words of reconciliation only underlined the fact that it was Yeltsin who had emerged the clear winner—in the short term at least—from the worst violence to sweep Moscow since the 1917 October Revolution. Even so, while public opinion polls showed widespread approval of the government’s use of force, many Russians were appalled at the bloodshed and criticized Yeltsin for not making a greater effort to find common ground with his opponents. Igor Safaryan, chairman of a Moscowbased brokerage and investment firm, claimed that all Yeltsin had to do was agree to the rebel hardliners’ demand for presidential elections at the same time as the parliamentary vote. Said Safaryan: “This carnage could have been prevented.”
Eschewing simultaneous elections, Yeltsin did agree to face the voters next June, two years short of his five-year mandate. But in promising the December parliamentary elections, he may have created a monster that he cannot control. His reputation at home and abroad could suffer if, as it now seems likely, there is not enough time available to arrange a truly democratic vote. An electoral commission has not yet drawn up constituency boundary lines for the new 450-seat duma, or assembly. Apart from the rough divide between democratic and pro-Communist alignments, there are few political organizations ready to fight an election. And of those parties in existence, Yeltsin supporters have been openly pressing for advantages that will favor organizations led by such presidential allies as Yegor Gaidar, the architect of the government’s economic reform programs. Similarly, Yeltsin aides are urging him to continue banning the Communists and nationalists from participating in the election— restrictions that more moderate politicians describe as a blatant strategy to pack the new assembly with Yeltsin sympathizers. Said Valeri Khomakiakov, co-chairman of the centrist Democratic party: “We cannot consider the coming elections as democratie. Under current conditions we are even having difficulty holding a party congress in Moscow.”
Apart from such party-level problems as finding and presenting suitable candidates on short notice, staging national elections in Russia requires the co-operation of local officials in the country’s regions. And with key districts in Siberia and other resource-rich areas initially siding with the rebellious parliamentarians in the power struggle, Yeltsin moved last week to widen his victory over his legislative foes.
He did so in two ways. In one area that he controls, the appointment of local administrators, Yeltsin fired two governors who had openly defied him and were flirting with regional secession. Then, he turned his attention to the soviets, or local councils. Like the now-defunct national parliament, those bodies at the municipal and district level are holdovers from the old Communist regime. Most of them are still dominated by collective farm directors and state industries dependent on government subsidies and credits.
At first, Yeltsin simply asked for elections of more representative assemblies, stating in his TV address: “I think the soviets must take a dignified and courageous decision to dissolve themselves and leave peacefully.” But later he took firmer action, giving a special commission just a week to work out plans for elections to new local councils in Russia’s 66 regions. He advised the 22 semi-autonomous republics to follow suit. But the president stopped short of dissolving the soviets outright, a more extreme measure that might have provoked another crisis—and one that could have dwarfed his confrontation with the 1,500 defiant deputies and their supporters holed up in the national legislature.
Yeltsin did, however, secure the removal of two foes in Moscow, Valentin Stepankov, the country’s top prosecutor, and Valery Zorkin, chairman of the 13-member Constitutional Court. In large part, Stepankov fell because he had bungled the prosecution of prominent former Soviet officials who had participated in the abortive 1991 putsch to preserve the old empire. As their trial lurched from postponement to postponement, the defendants became a rallying point for Soviet loyalists. Zorkin, for his part, had tended to side with parliament. That perception was heightened by last week’s release of a taped phone call made by Yeltsin’s chief opponent, estranged vice-president Alexander Rutskoi. Calling from inside the White House, Rutskoi appealed to the chief judge as a fellow believer in the parliamentary cause and pleaded with him to help stop tanks from firing on the building.
In 1991, Rutskoi, parliamentary Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov and Yeltsin all stood together at the White House and successfully defied hardline coup leaders. But with the common cause against communism seemingly won, Rutskoi and Khasbulatov split with Yeltsin as they sought to moderate the speed of economic reforms that have lowered most Russians’ standard of living. As the bloodshed at the national legislature indicated, post-Soviet politicians are still largely incapable of finding acceptable compromises with their opponents.
In any event, Yeltsin no longer has to worry about criticisms from Khasbulatov and Rutskoi. Along with 160 other leaders of the armed revolt, the two men are now imprisoned in Lefortovo Prison, a KGB-built jail in northeast Moscow. There, while still able to enjoy such privileges as wearing civilian clothes and smoking, the fallen leaders face the death penalty if convicted of murder charges laid in connection with last week’s violence. In Russia, that usually means a bullet fired into the back of the head. Yeltsin, certainly, is unlikely to seek mercy for them. “Everyone who took up arms and participated in the disturbance will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” he declared.
Still, Yeltsin will have to deal with the fact that, while relatively few Russians joined the rebel leaders in the White House, many share their criticisms of the country’s uncertain lurch towards capitalism. The sources of those concerns include seemingly pervasive corruption, rising prices, growing unemployment and the unequal distribution of income. “Life is now hard for many of us who were raised under socialist ideas of equality,” said Ludmilla Korotkova, 59, a former schoolteacher who was in tears last week as parliament burned. Korotkova faces a daily struggle to survive on a monthly pension of about $20, roughly a quarter of the average industrial wage in Moscow. Said Korotkova: “None of us had very much under communism, but we were all in roughly the same situation. Now, only a few businessmen—speculators, I call them—live well, while the rest of us suffer.”
In fact, Russia’s shift to capitalism has barely begun, as most of the country’s big industrial enterprises and collective farms remain state-owned. Privatization has transformed smalland mediumsized firms across the country. But the closure or breakup of outdated steel mills and other moneylosing socialist dinosaurs is certain to cause a dramatic leap in unemployment. To date, only about one million workers in a labor force of some 75 million people have lost their jobs. Instead, the government has avoided social unrest—and fuelled inflation running at close to 30 per cent per month—by continuing agricultural subsidies and propping up obsolete factories. Indeed, a small cutlery-making company in Volgograd is the only firm in Russia to actually file for bankruptcy since privatization began in 1991. So many ailing enterprises are still on government life-support systems that economic planner Gaidar, for one, has jokingly urged the capitalist equivalent of Communist show trials of the 1930s: widely publicized bankruptcy hearings.
In addition to Yeltsin, another sector of Russian society emerged on the winning side last week: the military, led by Defence Minister Pavel Grachev. He and his top commanders pledged their support for Yeltsin and rejected Rutskoi, one of their own, a highly decorated fighter pilot during the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But that outcome was not certain as the crisis developed and cabinet ministers and military brass alike remembered 1991, when army ranks split and some units followed the orders of hardliners in the Kremlin while others stayed on the sidelines. The military’s response was again critical this time, as a small but determined band of rebels came surprisingly close to toppling Yeltsin’s government.
The worst moments of the crisis happened over two days beginning on Sunday, Oct. 3, the 13th day of the hardliners’ protest against Yeltsin’s dissolution of parliament. They began with a crowd of at least 10,000 determined protesters breaking through riot police lines and surging up to the White House. There, Rutskoi urged them to continue the armed struggle by storming the mayor’s office nearby and seizing the Ostankino broadcasting centre. As armed rebels roared off towards the TV tower in captured military vehicles flying the old red Soviet flag, the fate of Yeltsin’s government hung in the balance for about 12 hours. At the outset, there was no military force on the scene capable of claiming the city for Yeltsin. Indeed, within the nearby defence ministry, senior officials and three-star generals had to personally guard the doors of a building housing the codes for Russia’s nuclear weapons.
Yeltsin flew into the Kremlin at 6:15 p.m. to take charge, arriving by helicopter from his country home outside Moscow. A journalist, who remained in the Kremlin when guards closed its gates, later reported that presidential officials were confused and fearful. Said Sergei Parkhonenko, a reporter with the Moscow newspaper Sevodnya (Today): “As the news came in from the streets, the fear turned to panic. At one point, everything seemed out of control.”
At the broadcasting centre, meanwhile, only the timely arrival of 100 elite soldiers prevented an armed mob of 2,000 rebels from seizing the national facility and cutting the government’s main media links with the rest of the country. Government spokesmen were reduced to broadcasting appeals for help from a makeshift studio. There, a shaken Gaidar made a late-night broadcast and called on citizens to turn out in the streets and defend the government. “If we do not succeed, we will all be living in a large concentration camp again,” warned Gaidar, speaking in a trembling voice.
As Yeltsin, meanwhile, sought to secure commitments from district military commanders to send troops to Moscow, the officers debated among themselves whether the army should get involved in the political struggle, even while the state was under attack. Eventually, relief forces from outlying areas were cobbled together from different units because of equipment shortages and manpower problems; many of the soldiers in the area were away from their units helping farmers harvest cabbages and potatoes. The first columns rolled into the city before dawn on Oct. 4. By sunrise, loyalist troops ringed the Kremlin and the nearby defence ministry. The rebels’ night of opportunity had slipped through their hands. The last bloody act in Moscow’s days of decision—the storming of the White House—was only a few hours away.
With ANDREW PHILLIPS in London and