Why The Constitution Is Not To Blame For Today's Regime:
A Hard Look At The 1993 Russian Constitutional Crisis
October 4, 2023
  • Andrei Kolesnikov

    Senior Fellow, Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center
On the 30th anniversary of the violent clash between President Yeltsin and the then-parliament, Andrei Kolesnikov argues that the leaders of the Supreme Soviet and the current regime are united by a desire to move backward historically.
Against today’s political backdrop, the events of 30 years ago, when RSFSR President Boris Yeltsin and the RSFSR Supreme Soviet squared off, look a very certain way: it should be acknowledged that the political line of the rebels, led by Supreme Soviet Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, Vice President Alexander Rutskoy, General Albert Makashov, leader of the Labor Russia movement Viktor Anpilov and others, won out in today’s Russia. The poignancy of the situation is that years later, their victory was ensured by those who back in 1993 were on the opposite, the presidential side. Hence the temptation to disassociate the current regime, which has plunged the country and the world into another crisis, from those who ordered the assault on the White House, and – this has become almost a commonplace – to blame the evolution of the Kremlin toward authoritarianism on the Yeltsin Constitution of 1993, which strengthened the presidential vertical. Despite the attractive simplicity of these conclusions, the fact is that the logic chain, as well as the interpretation of the events, is more complicated.

Dual power and the bourgeois revolution

In fact, Yeltsin reestablished the state: the Russian Federation was de facto founded not in 1990 or 1991, but in 1993. Before that, the country had dual power (dvoevlastie) and an unfinished bourgeois revolution (in the sense that the foundations of private property and the market had already been established), which had started with the reset of the economy through the radical liberal reforms that were formulated in 1991 and launched in 1992. This was the economic phase of the revolution, while the political phase ended with a struggle for power between two groups that nominally possessed power but proved unable to agree on the country’s subsequent way forward. The culmination was the events of October 3-4, 1993. The adoption of the 1993 Constitution institutionalized the outcome of the bourgeois revolution, legally securing the victory of presidential over conservative, “parliamentary” power. This presidential power personified the movement from socialism to capitalism and – at least ostensibly – to Western-style democracy.
The 1993 Constitution bore the mark of a civil war and to a greater extent the clash between two branches of government, each of which claimed primacy and had a clearly formulated ideology.
The situation was unusual in that each of the two ideologically opposing forces controlled its “own” branch of government. It so happened historically that the presidential branch acted as a representative of the market and democracy, while the “parliamentary” branch – the Supreme Soviet – personified, generally speaking, an anti-Western, traditionalist worldview.

However, among the victors, or more precisely among those who jumped onto the bandwagon of the victors, there were not so many genuine supporters of the “Western path” – a market economy, democracy and civil liberties. After 1993, they simply remained in power. And as time went on, the raison d’être for many of them boiled down to staying in power. It is not the constitution’s fault that these people slowly but systematically began to profane it, reducing it 30 years later to an aspirationaldocument interpreted in favor of the lifelong dictatorship of one man.

In the situation that arose in October 1993, the Constitutional Court took the side of one of the conflicting branches of government. Its decision on the unconstitutionality of Presidential Decree No. 1400 on the dissolution of the Supreme Soviet and the announcement of elections for a new parliament was an act of political struggle. The same court, with the same chairman, brilliantly confirmed this when in a single stroke it approved Putin’s low-key coup in 2020: the amendments to the Constitution adopted in 2020 allowed for nearly lifelong rule by the current president.
Yegor Gaidar (1956-2009), the architect of the liberal economic reforms and acting PM in President Yeltsin's government in 1992. Source: Wiki Commons
And it’s not about Yeltsin’s heavy-handedness; rather, it’s his naive hope that the conflict could be resolved. Generally speaking, he made endless compromises. He gave up ministers from the team of reformers. He compromised with the Supreme Soviet, dismissing Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, who had launched the systemic economic reforms. The essence of that compromise was explained by Gaidar himself in an interview: “in December 1992, after the conflict between Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet, the then and current, by the way, Chairman of the Constitutional Court Valery Zorkin came to me... and asked if I was ready to pave the way for stability and some kind of agreement to leave the government. I said yes... but this really must be the path to stability, to a constitutional deal that would pave the way to a new Constitution for Russia. And we agreed on this... The essence... was extremely simple: I resign, and in exchange we hold a referendum on the new Constitution in April 1993. And if Yeltsin does not reach an agreement with the Congress [of People’s Deputies] on what the Constitution should be, we will put two versions of this Constitution up for a referendum... In January [1993 – AK], the majority of the Supreme Soviet said: it does not matter what we signed, Gaidar resigned.”

Then there was the April referendum, in which Yeltsin received a popular mandate to continue reforms. But he did not dissolve the Supreme Soviet, reasoning that the conflict was over. And Gaidar was brought back in again as first deputy prime minister in September 1993 not to start a civil war, but to give impetus to reforms. Political time was then incredibly compressed: three days after Gaidar’s appointment, Yeltsin, with his aforementioned decree, dissolved the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet. There was also a part of Decree No. 1400 that has been forgotten, or rather is not remembered at all: it established a bicameral parliament, functioning on a professional basis, called the Federal Assembly.
Vice President Alexander Rutskoy addressing defenders of the Supreme Soviet. October 3, 1993. Source: VK
A constitutional crisis or a crisis of the constitution’s application?

The presidential branch hoped that the transition from the Supreme Soviet to parliament would be relatively smooth. But that was just a hope. A more realistic scenario was an intense confrontation. And it materialized. The escalation – with all lines of communication to the White House, where the Supreme Soviet was meeting, being cut, the Ostankino television center being stormed and the White House being shelled – began with an incident on September 23 on Moscow’s Leningradsky Prospekt, when an armed group led by the radical officer Stanislav Terekhov tried to break into the headquarters of the High Command of the CIS Armed Forces. A police captain and an elderly woman standing by a window were killed – the latter hit by a stray bullet.

Gaidar’s call on October 3 for Muscovites who supported Yeltsin to take to the square near the Moscow Soviet (Mossoviet) to defend the democratic gains was, generally speaking, an act of desperation – the army was hesitating over which side to take, and chaos reigned within the executive branch. Everything was very serious. It was literally a matter of life and death for those who were on either side of the barricades near the White House.
“The appearance of a mass of people on the square in front of the Mossoviet convinced the army to nevertheless intervene on the side of the president.”
What kind of Constitution should have emerged after all this?

Then there were real elections that saw Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR, the first populist party of its kind (much later such parties would begin to pop up in Europe), find success, leading publicist Yuri Karyakin to shout on television: “Russia, you’ve gone nuts!” Yet a real parliament that engaged in meaningful parliamentary competition and activity did emerge, though it would not last for long. The leaders of the rebellion were arrested, but were soon granted amnesty. Yeltsin was furious, but then said: “we will live by the Constitution.” The very one adopted in December 1993.

If the Constitution itself had really entailed authoritarian power of the president, the Duma, for example, would have been unable to block the most important decisions in the summer of 1998, which might have avoided a default – at that time, the president could not resist the communists (KPRF), which in the political language of the time were called the “irreconcilable opposition.” Because of the effective resistance of the parliamentary majority, represented primarily by the KPRF, Yeltsin was unable to bring back Viktor Chernomyrdin as prime minister and was forced to compromise by proposing conservative Yevgeny Primakov as head of government – everything in line with the Constitution.

The skew of the 1993 Constitution toward the executive branch was largely attributable to the impossibility of implementing economic reforms amid dual power. The Constitution in this sense buoyed the reformers and, according to Vladimir Mau, was intended to be an antidote to populism, primarily of the economic sort. This did not mean that the reformers dreamed of a Russian Pinochet – it was about blocking counter-reform moves that could have been used in the struggle for power.

Nevertheless, there is a caveat. As the Soviet dissident and human rights activist Valery Chalidze wrote, the purpose of the Constitution is to proclaim the basic principles of the legal structure of society and establish the boundaries of state power. The interest of the Russian liberal reformers at the end of the 20th century mirrored the intentions of their predecessors from the 19th century. The Russian emigrant publicist Nikolai Osipov, in his insightful article “The Credo of Russian Liberalism,” noted that liberals thought that an enlightened autocracy should be the instrument for carrying out reforms, not a constitution that would grant freedom. In this sense, most pragmatic liberals were chiefly interested in the ability of a monarch/president to ram through [reforms], and only secondarily in constitutional checks on his power.
Yet the fact that the 1993 Constitution envisioned Russia’s political system as a presidential republic did not imply an inevitable slide toward authoritarian rule whatsoever.
The aftermath of the shelling of the White House, the seat of the Supreme Soviet. Source: Wiki Commons
The Constitution is not to blame for that. After the adoption in 1958 of the “presidential” Constitution of the Fifth Republic, France did not cease to be a liberal democracy with regular transfers of power. The violation of Russia’s constitutional foundations during Putin’s rule by the highest echelons of power – what can be called a constitutional crisis – was not a crisis of the Constitution. It was a crisis of how the Constitution was applied. In this sense, the current regime is hardly a product of the 1993 Constitution.

What those who built the semi-totalitarian regime of today and the representatives of the Supreme Soviet of the early 1990s have in common is the desire to move backward historically – toward an undemocratic and illiberal political system that disdains, among other things, universal freedoms and human and civil rights. The same ones that are enshrined in Chapter Two of the 1993 Constitution and nominally exist to this day.
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