Black October, Part 3
To Coup or not to Coup
In Part 1 of this series, I took a look at overall political and social situation that lead to the Black October, the bloody conclusion of the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis. In Part 2, I examined the three principal personalities involved: Boris Yeltsin, Ruslan Khasbulatov, and Aleksandr Rutskoy. Now we are getting to the showdown.
Over the course of the end of 1992 and 1993, the conflict between Yeltsin and parliament grew ever more intractable and volatile. The executive and legislative branches became totally unable to work together and reduced to issuing contravening decrees of questionable legality. Addresses to the house from the speaker, Khusbalatov, and the president, Yeltsin, were really more exchanges of insults and denunciations than attempts to debate.
In December of 1992, at the Seventh Congress of People’s Deputies, Khusbalatov and Yeltson agreed on one “compromise”: a referendum that would directly ask the public whether they supported the President or the Congress of People’s Deputies. But it wasn’t too long before parliament started to backtrack on this decision. They were clearly concerned they might just lose the vote.
At the Eighth Congress of People’s Deputies in March 1993, they voted down the referendum and to strip more of Yeltsin’s powers. Yeltsin, encouraged by his “pro-democracy” faction, now considered direct presidential rule. He publicly announced that the referendum would go forward on April 25 and called for a period of “special rule” that would prohibit parliament from annulling his decrees or the resolutions of his government. This was met with vehement response from Khasbulatov, Rutskoy, and the head of the Constitutional Court, Valeriy Zorkin. Yeltsin backed down: the actual published text of his decree didn’t mention “special rule,” just the referendum.
In response to Yeltsin’s moves, a Ninth Congress of People’s Deputies would convene in Moscow in an atmosphere of crisis and recrimination. Khasbulatov and Yeltsin tried to work out another compromise: early parliamentary and presidential elections. Now, the enraged house turned on both men: the president and speaker faced votes to impeach them, fates they avoided; In Yeltsin’s case quite narrowly. The body rejected the early elections compromise and passed resolutions stripping more of Yeltsin’s powers. But they agreed to the April 25 referendum. The questions on the ballot were to be:
Do you have confidence in B.N. Yeltsin, President of the Russian Federation?
Do you approve of the social and economic policy that has been conducted the Russian Federation President and the Russian Federation government since 1992?
Do you consider it necessary to hold an early election for president of the Russian Federation?
Do you consider it necessary to hold early elections for Russian Federation People’s Deputies?
Sounds pretty straightforward and reasonable. But parliament had attempted to stack the deck in their favor: they stipulated that adoption of the measures would require more than 50 percent of the entire electorate not merely a majority of votes. The Constitutional Court revised this, saying that the first two motions just required a simple majority, but the last two would require this bizarre quorum to be valid.
Of course, this was a meaningless pseudo-compromise. The ideas of public “confidence” and “approval” have no legal significance; they are purely political notions. Everything that would set off a clearly defined legal process was buried under the electorate rule. In fact, rather than resolve the issue, the referendum set up the conditions to further exacerbate the crisis; both sides could conceivably claim victory: one could take on the mantle of democratic legitimacy, while the other could insist on proceduralism. Recalling the discussion in the first part of this series, the disposition of political forces at the time was somewhat ironic: the liberals behind Yeltsin were favoring a republic by plebiscite and demanding the president take on what were essentially dictatorial powers, while the red-brown alliance that wanted a new Russian strongman was defending the prerogatives of parliament and insisting on proper procedure. Still, Yeltsin committed to resign if he lost the vote of confidence, which sounds like a real consequence, but still is more of a political promise than an automatic process.
As it so happens, the referendum returned exactly the kind of disastrous result it seemed almost designed to do: 59.9 percent of voters supported Yeltsin, a surprising 54.3 percent supported his economic reforms, 48.8 percent voted in favor of new presidential elections, and 69.1 percent voted in favor of early parliamentary elections. It looked like a pretty overwhelming win for Yeltsin. But while the key provision, the calling for early elections, seemed to get full-throated public support, it fell well short of the dubious conditions imposed on it.
Yeltsin, with some justification, interpreted the result as a mandate. But attempts to bow to the will of the referendum within parliament were quickly quashed by Khasbulatov, who controlled his chamber more tightly than ever before. Yeltsin quickly moved forward with his own draft of a new constitution with a strong presidential role that included powers to dissolve parliament and call for new elections. He then convened a Constitutional Assembly to attempt to has out and ratify the new constitution. The Congress of People’s Deputies participated, but it submitted a totally opposed draft that stipulated parliamentary supremacy. When the Constitutional Assembly voted to adopt the new constitution, the Supreme Soviet just rejected it and declared itself the sovereign power in Russia and therefore the only body competent to write a new constitution.
A dangerous situation of dual power ensued. The Supreme Soviet even started to dictate its own foreign policy. They passed a resolution insisting that Sevastopol, now situated in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, remained a Russian city. Ukraine complained to the U.N. Security Council. Yeltsin denounced the resolution. One commentator in the newspaper Izvestiya remarked, “The President issues decrees as if there were no Supreme Soviet, and the Supreme Soviet suspends decrees as if there were no President."
There were other troubling signs, too. A May Day protest lead by the National Salvation Front turned violent, resulting in the death of a riot police officer. Yeltsin denounced them as “Communist and fascist forces” and “the beginning of a campaign of opposition to the legally elected authorities.” There was more than a little to this. While Khasbulatov, who said he favored a mixed economy on the model of the Scandinavian nations, had not gone over to the red-browns in the same way as vice-president Rutskoy, there’s some pretty strong evidence that he intended to overthrow Yeltsin and to establish of the Supreme Soviet as the highest power in the land. First off, the Congress of People’s Deputies, which had its own dedicated paramilitary force as well as the support of the extra-parliamentary National Salvation Front, was stockpiling arms. Second, vice-president Rutskoy, famous maker of intemperate remarks, declared on a visit to the Russian Far East that he would be president in a couple of months, perhaps tipping his hand. To make matters worse, Rutskoy was also going around accusing basically everyone in Yeltsin’s administration of corruption. Then he himself was accused of corruption, leading Yeltsin to suspend him on September 1, “pending an investigation.” Then, Khasbulatov publicly called Yeltsin a drunk.
Whatever the intention of the Supreme Soviet, it was Yeltsin who decided to strike first. On September 21, 1993, in a televised address, he declared parliament dissolved and called for elections to a new Federal Assembly in December. He did not have the constitutional authority to do any of this. Later, i his memoirs, Yeltsin would admit to breaking the law. Khasbulatov immediately labeled the president’s actions a coup d’etat. An extraordinary session of the Congress of People’s Deputies attempted to convene, but Yeltsin had imposed travel restrictions to prevent the body from reaching a quorum. They simply changed the rules and voted to impeach Yeltsin. Rutskoy would now be “president.” They also named their own ministers of the interior, defense, and security, but the actual bureaus declared fealty to Yeltsin. The Constitutional Court also declared Yeltsin’s decree illegal. The military announced its strict political neutrality, probably as much out of a desire to see what would shake out than out of principle.
With the help of a ragtag group of demonstrators that included Soviet pensioners and skinheads, the deputies set up barricades around the House of the Soviets. Armed men stood watch at the entrances armed with Kalashnikovs and stood by stockpiles of Molotov cocktails. On the barricades, the Soviet flag fluttered alongside the old Imperial flag from the days of the tsars. Disaffected veterans flocked to the House of Soviets to join the militias, who paraded in front of the parliament building for inspection by their president, Rutskoy. The power and telephone lines to the parliament building were cut.
In reality, these militias perhaps did not look quite so fearsome as they might sound on paper. The journalist Lawrence McDonell recalled:
Though these men were deadly serious in intent, the sight of them marching not quite in unison was almost comical. One or two were in parade uniform, others in camouflage; as they they’d been plucked from the crowd, kicking their legs high but still clutching shopping bags. [Rutskoy] praised them for defending the constitution.
They may have seemed a little silly to him, but at least some in their ranks clearly meant business. On September 23, gunmen attacked the military headquarters of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the successor organization to the USSR, killing a bystander and a policemen. Another squad attempted to storm the headquarters of military intelligence and were repulsed. On September 28, the Interior Ministry moved to cordon off the House of Soviets with razor wire and troops. The next day riots attempted to breach the lines. Yeltsin declared October 4 as the deadline for the occupiers to surrender their arms.
The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church attempted to mediate a peaceful solution. An agreement was reached by both sides, but neither Rutskoy nor Khasbulatov was really in control anymore. The hardline militias lead by Generals Vladislav Achalov and Albert Makashov refused any talk of compromise. The Interior Ministry estimated that there were 600 gunmen in the House of Soviets, armed with 1,600 assault rifles, 2,000 pistols, 18 machine guns, 12 grenade launchers and possibly a surface-to-air missile system. Keep in mind, these figures were never independently confirmed and could very well have been exaggerations on the part of the government.
On October 2, pro-parliament rioters outside the cordon attacked police with rocks and firebombs and formed another set of barricades, blocking the ring road near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, about a mile from the House of Soviets building. Rutskoi, speaking from the balcony of the White House, called for a general revolt: “Everyone rise up for the struggle against the dictatorship!”
On Sunday October 3, several thousand anti-Yeltsin demonstrators met on Oktyabrskaya, named for the October Revolution of 1917. Among their number were members of the National Salvation Front, itself an umbrella organization of several nationalist and communist groups, Viktor Anpilov’s hardcore Stalinist wing of the Communist party, and the explictly neo-Nazi National Unity group. The demonstrators began to march towards the House of Soviets. They easily swept aside the riot police that tried to block their way, linking up with the barricades on the ring road and converging on the White House. Using a stolen truck as a battering ram, the crowd broke the security cordon around parliament and linked up with the deputies and paramilitaries inside. They had triumphed and exuberantly awaited their next move, expecting to storm quickly from success to success.
Khasbulatov appeared on the balcony to address the mob, but his words were drowned out by the noise. Rutskoy then appeared, and with the help of a loudspeaker, instructed the crowd to seize the mayor’s office and the Ostankino television complex, six miles from the parliament building. The mayor’s office quickly fell and the insurgents sped towards the TV station in trucks, buses, and even armored personal carriers. Also on their way were to the TV complex were Interior Ministry troops, who beat the rebels by mere minutes.
Whether or not Khasbulatov and Rutskoy had intended to start a coup, by now it should be clear they were involved in one. The attempt to to quickly seize key technical resource like the TV station comes straight out of The Technique of Coup d’Etat, the Italian fascist Curzio Malaparte’s handy how-to-guide for such things. But the insurgents, who included many former members of the security services, probably didn’t need to do much homework to figure out what to do next in these situations: they would seize the TV tower and make a broadcast appealing to the whole nation to join their cause. General Makashov gave the defenders three minutes to surrender. They refused. A grenade was launched at the doors and a truck broke it down. In the subsequent firefight, more than 60 people are killed and some 400 wounded.
As it turned out, the plan to seize the Ostankino complex was misbegotten; pursued on the urging of the National Salvation Front leader Ilya Konstantinov. At the TV station, they got bogged down in a firefight for hours and the director simply pulled the plug on all the broadcasts. If the rebels had instead turned to the Kremlin, which is much closer to the House of Soviets, who knows what would have happened? Maybe the neo-fascists had read too much Malaparte, after all.
In the meantime, Yeltsin, who had been away at his dacha, returned to the Kremlin. He had yet to address the nation. Some sources say he was in no condition to do so, being completely drunk. Instead, his controversial minister Yegor Gaidar appeared on radio and television at to call for pro-Government counter-demonstrations in Moscow. They converged on the City Council building and began to assemble their own barricades. Around 10:30 at night, Interior ministry troops successfully fended off the rebels at the TV station, who fell back to the House of Soviets. And several units of the regular army were converging on Moscow. Yeltsin was conferring with the military’s senior commanders. Some reports suggest that the generals were divided about using troops to put down the revolt, but at around 2 a.m, October 4, a plan was agreed upon to storm the parliament building by force.
This feels like a natural place to stop. In the next, and I promise final installment, I will look at the retaking of the House of Soviets and the political aftermath of Black October.