Saturday, February 15, 2020

1993 Remains Defining Crisis in Post-Soviet Russia, Degtyanov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 9 – Efforts by Vladimir Putin to ensure that there will not be any change in the leadership of the country, efforts he justifies by the supposed threat of disintegration of the country in the event of any change, grow out of the government crisis of the fall of 1993, Andrey Degtyanov says.

            Putin himself for once honest made that clear in his February 4 remarks in Cherepovets, the historian says. In his speech, the Kremlin leader said that people don’t want to remember but must not forget what happened in 1993 when the country faced disaster which Boris Yeltsin prevented only by holding a referendum on trust in himself (

            For Putin, the clash in 1993 was “’a zero-sum game,’ in which the victor would get everything and in the event of defeat would lose everything.” And because of that understanding, Yeltsin and then his hand-picked successor have done everything to prevent something similar from occurring ever again. 

            Because of the continuing centrality of the events of that time, it is critically important that they be understood, Degtyanov says. They grew out of a conflict between a popularly elected president and a popularly elected parliament over what was to be included in the constitution but over the status there of the 1992 Federative Treaty in particular.

            The parliament wanted to include that treaty in the constitution, while the president wanted there to be no reference to its existence, thus implicitly annulling the treaty itself. That agreement specified that the country was to be based on federalism, the decentralization of state power, and the equality and self-determination of the peoples within the Russian Federation.

            Such things were completely unacceptable to the presidential party which viewed them as setting the stage for “’the disintegration of the country.’” Behind their fears were two developments that typically get lost in the coverage of the events of that time, St. Petersburg’s decision to become a republic and the Sverdlovsk Oblast’s to create a Urals Republic.

            What those actions meant was that the rights the non-Russian republics had claimed and that were both recognized but also limited and controlled by Moscow were now being claimed by predominantly ethnic Russian regions, a much greater challenge to the power of the center over the country.

            To block this, Yeltsin on September 21, 1993, issued a decree disbanding the parliament and ordering a referendum on his constitutional project.  The Russian Constitutional Court ruled against him, and the parliamentarians decided to ignore his actions and called for a meeting in Moscow on October 5.

            Significant too for subsequent events was the declaration by the oblasts and krays of the Councils of Siberia and the Russian Far East about their willingness to host meetings of the parliamentary bodies Yeltsin had liquidated in one or another Russian city east of the Urals, Degtyanov says (cf.

            But such a playing out of events was blocked as a result of “the provocative storm of the Ostankino television center by the Muscovite radical (imperial!) opposition.” That freed the Kremlin to use force against the parliament and by October 5 Yeltsin had established complete control of the situation.

            In the wake of this use of force, Yeltsin disbanded not only the parliament but also the regionalist Leningrad council, suppressed the Urals Republic, and imposed a system of the appointment of governors over the next two years lest there be any repetition of the events of 1993.

            In short, Degtyanov says, Yeltsin sought to “liquidate” three potential threats – “a federal parliament independent of the president, regional parliaments, and the Constitutional Court” – and thus destroy “the federative state with its division of powers,” something “about which the Kremlin even today doesn’t want to remember but also must not forget.”

            To “save Russia” and prevent its disintegration into chaos, Yeltsin elevated the position of president to something similar to Tolkien’s Ring of Power, “a magical artefact of terrible power” capable of preventing the disasters its wearer continued to predict and one that requires that there must not be any succession but only continuity.

            In fact, Degtyanov suggests, this approach based on the phobias of Russia’s rulers threatens the future of the country far more than anything else and thus the best approach is to seek to promote “federalism, the sovereignty of equal regional republics, an independent parliament … and an independent court.”

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