Yeltsin, Putin's worthy predecessor

Post-Soviet Russia entered the path of authoritarianism not in 2000, with the election of the current president, but seven years earlier - 30 years ago.

According to widespread opinion, the construction of the authoritarian system in Russia - after the collapse of the USSR - began with Vladimir Putin's first presidential term. Previously, until 1999, the head of the Russian state was Boris Yeltsin - a politician considered an advocate of liberal and democratic solutions.

This version of events emerges from the documentary testimonies filmed in 2018 - also broadcast on TVP Kultura channel - "Putin's Witnesses" directed by Vitaly Mansky. Today, this Russian filmmaker lives in Riga, and in Russia he is listed as a "foreign agent". But in 2000, he worked on Putin's first presidential election campaign. He later used the materials collected then in his production, which reveals the behind-the-scenes of the change of power in Russia at the threshold of the 21st century.

In Mansky's film, Yeltsin turns out to be disappointed with the beginning of Vladimir Putin's presidency. There is a symbolic scene in which he listens to the new anthem of the Russian Federation. Let us recall that on the initiative of Putin - preying on the nostalgic feelings of many Russians for the Soviet past - the melody from the Soviet times was restored, but with new lyrics - praising not the USSR but the Russian state. Consternation appears on the face of Yeltsin who in 1991 buried the Soviet Union and declared his willingness to break up with the Soviet heritage. The politician comments on the new anthem in one word: "Crimson".

However, "Putin's Witnesses" also remind us that the current president of Russia took over the legacy of his predecessor with his recommendation. It is significant that when he first ran for the Kremlin's mayor, he enjoyed the support of people then perceived as liberals and democrats. The document shows people who were on Putin's election team in 2000. These include Kseniya Ponomaryova, Gleb Pavlovsky, and Mikhail Kasyanov. Their subsequent paths were different, but they had one thing in common - each of them eventually parted ways with Putin. SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Therefore, we can confidently say that the Putin era is a continuation of the Yeltsin era. So, is the story about Boris Yeltsin as a politician who wanted to push Russia onto the path of Western-style liberal democracy untrue? We must go back to what happened 30 years ago to answer this question. Then - at the turn of September and October 1993 - dramatic, bloody events took place on the streets of Moscow, which went down in history as the "execution of the White House".

Then, forces subordinated to the president - units of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the army - stormed the seat of the bicameral Russian parliament, the Supreme Soviet of Russia. This building is called "the White House". Today, it is the seat of the government of the Russian Federation.

The basis of the conflict in question was the dual-power system that emerged after the collapse of the USSR. Since 1991, Russia has been building its new statehood. But there was still a functioning relic of the Soviet system, which consisted of two bodies: the Congress of People's Deputies of the Russian Federation and the Supreme Soviet of Russia - elected by it. It became a stronghold of politicians who - by undermining the line of the president and the government - de facto tried to paralyse these centres of power.

It should be mentioned that the Congress of People's Deputies had the most democratic legitimacy (this became important after the Communist Party of the Soviet Union lost its political monopoly in the USSR at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s). Such circumstances were the essential arguments for the Supreme Soviet when it finally clashed with the president.
A month before the "execution of the White House". Russian President Boris Yeltsin's visit to Poland. Photo PAP/Janusz Mazur
In 1992, in line with the trends prevailing in the world, Russia was administered liberal economic "shock therapy". Its author was a politician responsible for economic affairs in the Russian government - and for some time also the head of the cabinet - Yegor Gaidar. He made fateful decisions full of consequences for the Russian economy. He abolished central planning and freed the market (including prices). As a result, hyperinflation broke out, which led to a gigantic pauperisation of Russian society (for example, arrears with salaries and pensions were the norm). However, this "wild capitalism" also had its beneficiaries. They were nomenklatura businessmen, i.e. the management staff of privatised enterprises. Nevertheless, Russia descended into chaos.

This state of affairs was fuel for political circles, which - representing the interests of the military-industrial complex - opposed the liberal course chosen by Boris Yeltsin and his camp. It was a broad spectrum of different groups – from communists, who dreamed of restoring the Soviet Union, to various "great-power patriots", such as the vice-president of Russia (later this office was abolished), Aleksandr Rutskoi. This general, a retired aviation major and veteran of the war in Afghanistan, formally Yeltsin's deputy, joined the opposition to his superior. Together with the chairman of the Parliament of Russia, economist Ruslan Khasbulatov (a Chechen who did not share the independence aspirations of his compatriots), he led the anti-Yeltsin rebellion.

The point was that the president wanted to end the dual power in Russia and gain freedom to carry out unpopular reforms. The conflict broke out on September 21, 1993. Yeltsin then signed decree number 1400. This document assumed that some of the powers of the Supreme Soviet of Russia would be transferred to the head of state. The Supreme Soviet was to be dissolved and replaced by the Federal Assembly composed of an upper house - the Federation Council - and a lower house - the State Duma. Direct elections to both new chambers were scheduled for December 11 and 12, 1993. However, Yeltsin's decree was found by the Russian Constitutional Court to be contrary to the Russian Constitution.
The political confrontation between the two centres of power took on an armed character. Communist and nationalist militias supported by army reservists and former Ministry of Internal Affairs officers stood on the Supreme Soviet's side. Riots broke out on the streets of Moscow. Official data say that about 150 people lost their lives within several days or so, but some sources report that the final death toll could reach over 800.

The culminating moment occurred on October 4. The shelling of the "White House" by forces subordinated to the Russian president resulted in the capture of the building. Ruslan Khasbulatov and Alexander Rutskoy were sent to the Lefortovo detention centre (an infamous KGB prison). However, they had no trial. After a few months, they were released under the amnesty announced by Yeltsin.

What happened in Russia in that fall of 1993 strengthened Boris Yeltsin's position. He managed to push through his plans. In December 1993, the Federation Council and the State Duma elections were held. However, the success in this race was achieved by the parties standing in opposition to the president - also those whose ideas about Russia were consistent with the defenders of the Supreme Soviet of Russia. In the Duma elections, the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, took first place, and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, led by Gennady Zyuganov, took third place.

In this situation, Yeltsin used various extra-legal tools to maintain his power. One can mention here the fraud in the presidential elections in 1996. Therefore, post-Soviet Russia entered the path of authoritarianism not in 2000 but seven years earlier.

The paradox of the situation in Russia is that a politician, with the ambition to make his country more similar to the West, acted using methods considered undemocratic in the West. But that was the political price of stopping the communists and the "great-power patriots". Anyway, in Russia it was impossible to build a liberal democracy based on the Western model.

– Filip Memches

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– translated by Katarzyna Chocian
Main photo: A tank from a regiment loyal to Russian President Boris Yeltsin in front of the parliament building on October 4, 1993. Photo. EPA/VLADIMIR VELENGURIN
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