Making Sense of October 1993.
Graeme Gill, University of Sydney
Paper presented to the Conference « Un Octobre oublié ? La Russie en 1993 », Paris, 18-19 Novembre 2013
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The events of late 1993 now go largely unmarked in Russia. In the ten years following the violent clashes in Moscow and the subsequent election and constitutional referendum, there was no side of politics for whom revival of the memory of these events seemed to involve political advantage. For Yeltsin and his supporters, this would simply have emphasised the violence with which he sought to resolve his difficulties with the parliament and the questions of legitimacy flowing from the disputed nature of the election and constitutional referendum result. For the communists, it would have threatened to revive the image of them as insurgents, when their interests throughout the 1990s lay in projection of them as responsible parliamentary players. But just because there is a lack of public recognition of what occurred in 1993 does not mean that it was not important. Indeed, some of the elements of post-1993 Russian politics may be seen as direct results of that conflict and the way it played out. But first, what is meant by the events of 1993?
In looking at the consequences of the events of 1993, it is important not just to focus on the president-parliament conflict and its violent end, but to include the election and referendum held at the end of the year. Following the end of the USSR in December 1991, a political stand off emerged between President Boris Yeltsin and the parliament, the Supreme Soviet/Congress of People’s Deputies. In the parliament, which was elected in 1990, communists constituted a major bloc, although given the disintegration of the CPSU in the late 1980s-1990, it is not clear that those elected under the party’s banner really constituted a coherent group. Nevertheless much of the parliament gathered behind the speaker, Ruslan Khasbulatov, as he engaged in a struggle with Boris Yeltsin. The essential questions at the heart of this conflict related to personal aspirations and antagonism, institutional competition, and policy differences. Yeltsin’s pursuit of a radical economic agenda generated significant opposition within the parliamentary chamber, while his preference for a strongly presidential form of government also engendered opposition from those who favoured a parliamentary form. Various half-hearted attempts at compromise in 1992-93 came to nothing, and ultimately on 31st September 1993 Yeltsin suspended operation of the parliament. In response, some of the parliamentarians met in extraordinary session, formally removed Yeltsin, occupied the parliament building, and called for popular protests in opposition to Yeltsin’s action. On 4th October, under Yeltsin’s orders, the army shelled the parliament building and arrested the rebel deputies and their supporters. In December Yeltsin proceeded with an election for a new parliament and a referendum on a new draft constitution that had been devised in the president’s office. The election was characterised by a strong protest vote reflected in the prominence in the new chamber of critics of the president, while formally the new constitution was declared to have been adopted.
What consequences flowed from this course of events for future Russian development? One way of looking at this is, while recognising the practical interdependence of the two, to see it in terms of agency and structure.
At the immediate practical level, the 1993 outcome confirmed Yeltsin in power and thereby ensured that the course of economic reform would not be abandoned. However reflecting the nature of the 1993 conflict, throughout the rest of the 1990s, while Yeltsin continued to espouse economic reform, its radical nature was wound back. A desire to avoid further outright conflict with the parliament was part of this, especially given the strength of the opposition in the parliaments elected in 1993 and 1995 where opposition forces gained respectively 43.3% and over 80% of the vote, while the appointment of less radical figures to government offices also assisted this process. Had the parliament been victorious over Yeltsin in 1993, it is likely that economic reform would have been reduced even further, perhaps even reversed. This means that the particular forms that Russian capitalism has taken, which were shaped inter alia by decisions made by Yeltsin and those around him, was a direct result of the outcome in 1993.
The consolidation of Yeltsin’s hold on the presidency in 1993, re-affirmed in 1996, allied to his physical state had another important dimension in terms of agency. At no time during his presidency was Yeltsin in perfect health, but he was clearly much more incapacitated from the time of his multiple heart attacks in late-June 1996. During his second term, he was at times clearly ailing, and it was clear to all by the time he retired that his physical limitations were affecting his performance in the job. This experience was one factor facilitating the movement of Vladimir Putin into the presidency. He was seen in many respects as the reverse of Yeltsin. Much younger and clearly more healthy and vigorous, Putin seemed to be everything that Yeltsin was not. This seemed to be reflected in his election victory in the first round in March 2000, a result that compared more than favourably with that achieved by Yeltsin in his election victories. While the comparison of Putin with Yeltsin was clearly not the only factor in the former’s victory, it nevertheless played a part, so in this sense, the way things turned out in 1993 helped to shape the presidential succession seven years later.
Yeltsin’s victory in 1993 also fed into other aspects of Russian policy, but these may be best seen in terms of structural factors.
The course and outcome of 1993 shaped the development of the political system in important ways. One of the most important is that it prevented the emergence in Russia of a parliamentary political system. This question – should Russia have a parliamentary or presidential system – was one of the issues at the heart of the 1993 conflict. Many of those in the parliament favoured the former, not only because it would have enhanced their political importance and placed greater limits on the president who many of them did not trust, but because it was more consistent with Soviet traditions than a presidential system, which was only a late Soviet innovation. Yeltsin and many others favoured a presidential form of government because they believed that this gave the best opportunity to force through a radical agenda. And of course many supported one side or the other simply because they believed that this formed the best system of government. In any event, the outcome of the conflict was adoption of a Constitution that made provision for a powerful president. This was not a form of “super-presidentialism” as some have suggested, although it did render the president the most powerful actor in the political system. The president defined the “basic directions of the domestic and foreign policy of the state”, could initiate legislation and issue decrees, edicts and directives that had the force of law (although they could be rescinded by the parliament or annulled by the Constitutional Court), appointed the prime minister (“with the consent of the State Duma”), and government ministers (on the proposal of the prime minister), meaning the government was responsible to the president. He nominated people to head the Central Bank and a range of courts (including the Constitutional Court), formed the Security Council, and appointed his representatives in the regions, diplomatic representatives and the head of the armed forces. The president could introduce a state of emergency, suspend civil freedoms and veto legislation adopted by the State Duma. All of the so-called “power ministries” were directly subordinate to the president while the others were subordinate to the government. Under certain circumstances the president could dissolve the Duma, while being relatively immune from impeachment because of the complexity of that process. But there were limitations on his power. All legislation had to be passed by parliament, including the budget, under certain circumstances the president could be impeached although that was a difficult process, any presidential veto of legislation could be overturned by a two-thirds majority of both houses of parliament, and he could not hold office for more than two consecutive terms. The president possessed a considerable panoply of powers, but the parliament in principle retained significant capacity to restrain the president, especially through its control over the budgetary approval process. Nevertheless the system was closer to a presidential than to a parliamentary system.
This had implications for Russia’s political trajectory. There is a substantial literature that argues that parliamentary systems are more likely to embody and foster democratic practices than presidential systems. While the essence of this argument concerns the greater decentralisation of power in parliamentary than in presidential systems, with more avenues into the political process and the greater likelihood of balancing or checking forces operating in the parliamentary system and therefore the greater likelihood of bargaining and compromise, institutional form alone cannot explain political outcomes. The way political elites choose to play the political game is also central to this, but to the extent that this is shaped by the institutional contours, whether a system is parliamentary or presidential can help to shape the political trajectory. Most observers accept that over the last two decades Russia has become less democratic and moved in a more authoritarian direction, and they attribute this in large part to the personal influence of Vladimir Putin. But the fact that he has occupied the presidency and been able to use the authority and power of that role cannot be ignored as a factor. By building in a powerful presidency, the Constitution opened the door for the incumbent of that post to use those powers to consolidate and increase their power, and thereby shift the system in a less democratic direction.
The centralisation of power scholars have pointed to in the presidential system as a potential barrier to democracy has been reflected in Russia by the growth in power of the Presidential Administration. Established on the basis of the Soviet CC Secretariat, this was the political machine that served the president and was under his direct and immediate control. While this had been growing in size before the events of 1993, its scope expanded following those events. As well as performing the basic house-keeping functions for the president, it developed a broad supervisory and watching brief over all areas of policy, with its departments effectively coming to shadow those of the government. As Yeltsin sought to circumvent the opposition of the Duma by ruling through other means, chiefly through the issue of presidential decrees, his capacity to do this rested principally upon the Presidential Administration. This became the key institutional instrument of the presidency, and perhaps even the system, and, in the absence of a vice-president and the weakness of the prime minister, its head became virtually the second most powerful person in the political structure; and as the later careers of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev shows, it was a major source of future leaders.
The powerful presidency has also facilitated the development of personalism as a principal element in the Russian system. Personalism refers to the way in which the personal preferences and priorities of leaders have precedence over the formal, institutional rules and regulations. Personal action is only weakly structured by formal rules as the leader has freedom of action to do virtually whatever he likes. At the extreme, this is a single-person dictatorship, but this relationship between personal freedom and institutional regulation is evident in all systems. The systems differ by degree in the range of freedom available to a leader, and this can change over time. Generally, the more the restriction, the greater the constitutionality of the system and the less the restriction, the weaker the constitutional provisions. Russia under Yeltsin (and also Putin) did not approach the level of personal dictatorship, but it has also been a long way short of a constitutional regime. Certainly Yeltsin abided by the general provisions of the Constitution – he rejected pressure in early 1996 to postpone the presidential election (the desire to avoid the 1993 precedent was apparently instrumental in this decision) and he obeyed all findings of the Constitutional Court even when he disagreed with them – but his approach to rule and to the presidency was driven by the conviction that he personally carried responsibility for guiding Russia away from its communist past and into the bright new future. His political career in the last years of the Soviet period showed his propensity to pursue personal campaigns regardless of formal structures (indeed, this had been one of the major reasons for his survival and ultimate success as a politician in the 1988-91 period), and his experience in 1992-93 seems to have reinforced his belief in the necessity and efficacy of acting in this way. The unrolling of the events of 1993 seems to have confirmed in his mind the image of himself as the saviour of Russia. It was he who stood up to the reactionary parliament and forced it to back down, thereby saving Russia from a revanchist, communist fate. He seemed to see his role as almost historically defined, and therefore exempt from the constraints of ordinary rules.
This attitude was reflected in the approach Yeltsin adopted to the electorate throughout his presidency. Although Yeltsin’s electoral success was due in part to the way in which the electoral process was manipulated (see below), he did enjoy genuine popularity among sections of the populace. He sought to cultivate this by creating a charismatic connection between himself and his followers. Projecting the message that he alone had the qualities to guide Russia through its contemporary troubles, he called for support and allegiance from the people on a purely personal basis, unmediated by any intervening organisational structures. By refusing to belong to any party, which itself had significant effects on the way the system developed (see below), he sought to present himself as the voice and embodiment of all the Russian people, and therefore above the constraints of “normal” politics. That this failed to resonate with significant sections of the electorate was important for immediate electoral outcomes, but less so for the future development of the system. The model of president that Yeltsin passed on to his successor was very much one that emphasised the personalist aspects of the role and its priority over the formal rules of the game.
Another reflection of this has been the way that the presidential succession has been managed. Formally, after two consecutive terms, the president stands down and his replacement is chosen by popular ballot. However this provision was manipulated by Yeltsin in 1999, a practice repeated in 2008 and 2011-12. While on all occasions, the president was chosen by competitive ballot, the ground of that vote was substantially tilted in favour of the candidate supported by the incumbent president. By resigning early in 1999, Yeltsin ensured that his prime minister and preferred candidate to replace him, Vladimir Putin, enjoyed all of the advantages of incumbency in the coming ballot. This also meant that the vote was brought forward three months, catching the opposition unawares and giving them half the time they thought they had to organise their presidential campaign. In the later instances, while there was no early resignation, the designation of a preferred successor clearly reflected an attempt to improve the prospects of that person in the election. This sort of manipulation of the system reflected not only the strength of the personalist principle, but the acceptability of manipulation of the system to produce preferred outcomes (see below).
The rejection of a parliamentary system and the personalist style of presidency that emerged under Yeltsin had significant implications for the development of political parties. A parliamentary system involves a government formed by parties in the parliament, and therefore imposes upon parties a form of discipline absent from other sorts of arrangements. In order to form government, parties must develop both an infrastructure and a policy framework designed at least in part to attract the popular vote and to unite party members in the parliament behind its agenda. They must also have a level of discipline in the parliamentary chamber sufficient to ensure that the government does not fall as a result of splits within the party. Unless a party can do these things, it is unlikely to succeed in a parliamentary system. However these disciplines are not there to anything like the same extent when the fate of the government is not dependent upon a continuing party majority in the chamber. Accordingly the system introduced in 1993 did not create the sorts of incentives that could lead to powerful party organisations. Parties have been weakly organised, often little more than a coterie around a prominent leader who has sought to use the party to further his own personal interests. Parties (with the exception of the communists) have generally lacked a substantial national organisational structure and a coherent policy platform. Parties have been prone to division and splitting, and the refusal to come together in meaningful organisational structures, reflected in the vast array of small parties that are unable to make any headway with the electorate; the absence of a single viable liberal party is the best instance of this. This sort of party system has been described by one scholar as “feckless pluralism”. Of course the nature of the system was not the only factor in producing weak parties; the personal ambitions and idiosyncrasies of the party leaders, popular resistance to parties stemming from the Soviet experience of the ruling party, the weakness of clear constituencies among the voters, the weariness of people with politics, and the way in which the difficult economic circumstances of the 1990s tended to encourage people to direct their energies into activities other than the political, all contributed to the weakness of party development. But while all of these were important, the absence of a systemic imperative for strong and stable parties stemming from the type of political system established in 1993 was crucial.
Reference has been made to manipulation of the system with regards to the presidential succession, but this has been even more extensive in the way in which elections have been run. The 1993 election set a precedent here. Yeltsin sought to skew the electoral choice available to voters. Following the closure of the parliament, Yeltsin banned 15 newspapers on the grounds that they had contributed to mass disorder in Moscow (meaning they had supported the parliamentary opposition against him), and suspended 16 parties on the grounds that they had been involved in these events. These were all opposition parties, including the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), although the ban on this party was overturned before the election, enabling it to take part. Of the 30 parties/electoral associations that attempted to gather the 100,000 signatures needed to participate in the election, 21 claimed to have got the required number of signatures. However eight of these were denied registration, on what they claimed were false grounds, while there were charges of harassment and intimidation from many of the parties that were unable to claim sufficient support. There were also restrictions placed on the campaign. The principal, informal, one was the massive media bias against the communists, But also important was Yeltsin’s injunction that if the leaders of the electoral blocs standing attacked the draft constitution, the president or each other, they would lose the free time they had been allocated on state media. Furthermore the draft constitution upon which the people were being called upon to vote was not published until a month before the ballot, giving very little time for a robust debate on what was a complicated document. Following the conduct of the ballot, there were also reports of significant electoral fraud, including exaggeration of voter turnout in order to reach the 50% requirement for adoption of the constitution (it reported that only 46.1% of the electorate had participated, a figure which, if correct, would have meant that the constitution had not been adopted), and the misallocation of some 17% of the ballots to parties for which they had not been cast. There was some criticism of such fraud at the time, but this was neither widespread nor sustained.
While these measures did not produce the electoral result Yeltsin was seeking, they did establish a precedent that manipulation of the electoral process was acceptable in order to achieve political ends. This principle was then applied to the remaining elections in the decade, parliamentary in 1995 and 1999 and presidential in 1996 and 2000. In all of these elections, albeit to differing degrees, the integrity of the electoral process was corrupted by the manifest inequality of economic resources available to the pro-Yeltsin forces, thereby enabling them to grossly outspend their opponents including exceeding the legal limits on campaign spending, a biased media which gave the opposition little positive exposure, and the fraudulent manipulation of the ballots. Although the 1996 presidential poll was probably the most egregious case of electoral manipulation, this occurred in all elections during this decade. The principal factor enabling this was the control that Yeltsin and his supporters were able to exercise over the state and the enormous resources it had to hand. It was this control, significantly aided by the efforts of sympathetic supporters in the business world, that subverted the electoral process in Yeltsin’s Russia and ensured that the electoral contest was not an even one.
With the international dominance of the democratic paradigm following the end of the cold war and the collapse of communism, added to the triumphalist strain in Western assessments of international developments at this time, one might have expected considerable Western criticism of this subverting of the democratic process in Russia, much like there has been on developments in Putin’s Russia. During this decade various election monitoring agencies did complain about the conduct of the Russian elections, and some Western governments did note the elections’ undemocratic features and express their concern. However generally the Western reaction was muted. There was no trenchant criticism of the failings of the process and a general willingness to argue that Russia remained on the path to democracy and that these were minor blips on that path. The principal reason for Western quiescence is that the Western powers had tied themselves to Yeltsin personally. With the collapse of perestroika and the Soviet Union, leading Western politicians shifted their support (and hopes) from Gorbachev to Yeltsin. This attachment was strengthened in the early 1990s by the passive foreign policy outlook adopted by Russia with regard to Western interests and their pursuit, but it really became unbreakable with the events of 1993. These were widely interpreted in the West as Yeltsin leading the opposition to a reassertion of communist power in Russia, and therefore to a re-opening of the Cold War. The fact that the communists constituted the strongest anti-Yeltsin force throughout the 1990s confirmed this image, but this was merely confirming what had been established in 1991 and dramatically boosted in 1993. Yeltsin was cast as the fighter for an anti-communist future and therefore for world peace. This image locked Western leaders firmly to Yeltsin’s side and muted any criticism they may have had of the undemocratic aspects of the Russian electoral process. For political reasons, then, Western leaders refused to place pressure on Yeltsin to clean up the electoral process.
The events of 1993 may also have set the tone of politics in the 1990s. The two main protagonists in 1993, at least as perceived by themselves and more generally by many in retrospect, were Yeltsin and the communists. And at the symbolic and rhetorical levels, these remained the principal political actors throughout the 1990s. The KPRF remained a major party in the Duma and in successive electoral contests, while the main opponent to Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential poll was the leader of the KPRF, and a representative of this party was seen as the most likely main challenger in 2000. Relations between Yeltsin and the communists had been bad since the perestroika period, but the clash in 1993 took them to a new low. It is clear that politically neither side had any time for nor would give any concessions to the other. Their relationship was one of inveterate opposition, reflected in the attempts by the communists to engineer Yeltsin’s impeachment in the Duma. This visceral mutual hatred, plus the ability of the communists to establish a substantial presence in the Duma, prevented the president and the parliament not only from working together, but from being able to reach a compromise on various issues. The Yeltsin-communist stand off thus had important implications for the institutional development of the system because it hindered the growth of a workable relationship between the president and the parliament. What this reflected is the fact that politics was seen as a zero sum game: either Yeltsin won, or the communists won. In this sort of situation, compromise was virtually impossible, and politics was a game of winner take all. This is precisely the lesson that the events of 1993 gave, and the result was a dysfunctional system that staggered on from crisis to crisis without any apparent means of escaping this self-defeating process, at least while the two main protagonists remained unchanged.
A Legacy for Putin?
The influences that 1993 has had on the remainder of that decade have been outlined above, but have they been carried forward into the following, Putin, period? In substantial measure they have. Despite the question being raised in a desultory fashion from time to time, there has been no shift in the direction of replacing the presidential system by a parliamentary one. Constitutionally Russia has remained very stable in the two decades since the Constitution was introduced. However what originally flowed from this choice has, if anything, been strengthened since Putin became president. The centralisation of power in the presidency and the presidential apparatus became stronger following Putin’s election owing to both institutional changes – especially the undermining of the positions of the regional governors and the growth of central state capacity – and the personal circumstances of the president; Putin was a much more activist president and suffered from none of the physical afflictions that had bedeviled his predecessor. This is not to say that central control became absolute, because there were still significant limitations in the capacity of the centre to project its authority across the country, but that capacity was clearly greater than it had been under Yeltsin.
The personalism that went with presidential centralisation under Yeltsin has also been evident under Putin, even if it has taken something of a different aspect. While there have been attempts to generate a charismatic image of Putin – note the beginnings of a leader cult in the mid-2000s and the presentations of him in various energetic poses (fishing with a bare top, driving trucks and light aeroplanes, recovering ancient artefacts from the seabed) – more generally he has projected an image of the can-do leader who works diligently away at getting things done. He appears as the practical, hands-on politician who is concerned both for the people’s welfare and for the interests of Russia. Rather than the leader who seemed to seek definition through standing up to and defeating a (communist) opposition, he was the leader who restored stability to society and ushered it along the track to a new bright future. But he did this by working through the system and cooperating with others in political life. Not for him the uncertainty caused by a willful leader, but the assuredness and certainty that came from mastery of the system. And it was this mastery of the system, added to the notion of the indispensability of the person, that underpinned his choice of Medvedev to replace him as president in 2008 and his return to that office in 2012. This was a different perspective to that surrounding Yeltsin, but it was no less personalist.
Most of the political parties have remained in their nature much as they were under Yeltsin. While the numbers have fluctuated, depending in part upon changes in the electoral regulations, the overwhelming majority of them remain in the form described as “feckless pluralism”. But there have been two important changes to the party system since Putin came to power. The first has been the emergence of a so-called “party of power”, initially Unity which was then subsumed into United Russia. This was a party established from the top, in the Kremlin, to represent the interests of the president. Unlike earlier attempts to do this (Russia’s Choice and Our Home is Russia), the party of power under Putin has been able to establish for itself a solid representation in the Duma; since 2003 it has been the majority party. This has given the president an important mode of leverage in the Duma (see below), but it also has served as a dampener to further party development elsewhere in the system. With the party of power able to dominate through the electoral process, the incentive for people to go to work developing other parties has declined. The second change is that the position of inveterate opposition by the KPRF has disappeared. In large part a function of the fact that Putin effectively took over much of their constituency and part of their policy program, the differences between the party and the president that had yawned so large when Yeltsin was president disappeared. But this also meant that historically the largest and best organised party outside the party of power had effectively been co-opted, so that what has now been called the “systemic opposition” has collapsed, because the other parties remain much as they were under Yeltsin.
Electoral manipulation remains as endemic under Putin as it was under Yeltsin. All of the elections in the 2000s have been characterised by the same sort of abuses that were evident earlier. Most importantly, the electoral arena has been tilted substantially in favour of the party of power: opposition is barred from participating on pseudo-legal grounds, parties and activists are harassed as they go about their electioneering, there is unfair media coverage, pressure may be applied to voters, and control of the state is used to misallocate ballots and to ensure that official candidates have no shortage of resources to press their messages. All of these sorts of things have been evident in all elections under Putin, just as they were under Yeltsin, and although the electoral malpractice stimulated popular protest in 2011-12, there is no evidence that anything structural has been done to eliminate these deficiencies. However one thing that has changed is the strength of Western criticism of this. Reflecting the more assertive stance Russia has taken under Putin, plus the conception among some Western circles that Putin is little more than a Soviet revanchist, Western leaders have been much more willing to criticise perceived shortcomings in the Russian political process than they were under Yeltsin.
One element that has changed is the political stand off between the president and the Duma. Owing mainly to the dominating position the party of power was able to get in the Duma, but also to the co-optation of the communists noted above, Putin was able to neutralize the Duma as a source of carping and criticism. Rather than being a site of opposition activity and a platform for criticism of the president, the Duma has been transformed into a dutiful and obedient part of Putin’s ruling apparatus. This is a significant development because it constitutes the total reversal of the central dynamic of 1993.
The Question of Causality.
Having shown that there are links between the events of 1993 and later developments in the system, the question remains about the nature of those links. Except for Yeltsin’s predominance, nothing automatically and inevitably flowed from his victory over the parliamentary opposition in 1993. The contours of post-1993 politics were shaped by many forces, including crucially the perspectives, priorities and prejudices of Yeltsin himself. Had he sought to reach out to his opposition and seek to compromise with them, had he shown the importance of parties by becoming the head of one and working through it, had he been willing to take his chances at the ballot box rather than trying to prejudice the outcome through manipulation, the system may have turned out very differently. But he was unwilling to do any of this, perhaps in part because of the effect of 1993 upon him. Clearly the events of that year coloured his perceptions just as they coloured those of his opponents, and in this sense the events of 1993 were important in shaping subsequent political contours.
But if nothing was inevitable, what the events of 1993 did was to create a situation of path dependence in the sense that the developments sketched above were a logical continuation of the trends evident in 1993. This may have manifested itself through developments that logically extended what emerged from 1993; the presidential system and the implications of that for the power of the parliament and the nature of parties is a clear case of this. The other form through which such manifestations could occur was the notion of precedent. A clear case here is that of electoral manipulation, where Yeltsin’s attempt to structure the 1993 election created a precedent for how to approach those of 1995-96. And once this had been done again, it became part of the general expectations of political officials that they should behave in this way, that it was part of the job of subordinate officials to support the electoral performance of their superiors in whatever ways they could.
This means that 1993 was a critical juncture in the development of the Russian Federation. It set the course of politics on the path it has taken ever since, characterised by a strongly presidential system, weak political parties, and an electoral authoritarian rather than a democratic polity.