Moscow still haunted by Yeltsin's attack on parliament

 

Russia: Ten years ago Yeltsin's troops assaulted parliament in what is described as one of the crimes of the century, writes Daniel Mclaughlin from Moscow

It is a decade since Russia's crack troops led two of the country's leading politicians from a smouldering parliament building to a waiting jail cell, through streets where perhaps hundreds of people had been shot dead in 24 hours of bloody chaos.

First they brought out Mr Ruslan Khasbulatov, in a dishevelled jacket and sweater, looking less like a speaker of parliament and opposition firebrand than the university professor he had been before his rise to political prominence.

Behind him came Mr Alexander Rutkoi, still in army fatigues that became the burly Afghan War veteran far more than the suit he had recently donned in his role as Russian vice-president.

A dozen floors up, shredded curtains billowed through the gaping frames of shattered windows. The pale façade of Moscow's White House was scarred and blackened by the tank fire that had brought to a deadly close President Boris Yeltsin's standoff with Russia's parliament.

"They are such sad memories," said Mr Rutskoi this week. "It was an unprecedented thing in the history of civilisation, that parliament was surrounded, people outside were beaten like animals and then it was hammered by tanks.

"It was impossible to believe that Yeltsin would decide a parliamentary problem that way," he told The Irish Times. "What happened was nothing to do with defending democracy - it was one of the crimes of the century."

Official figures say 147 people died on October 3rd-4th, 1993, when Mr Yeltsin sent in troops to evict opposition politicians from the parliament building on the banks of the Moscow River.

Mr Rutskoi and many others say hundreds more actually perished in clashes around the city as protests against Mr Yeltsin's free-market reforms degenerated into clashes between unarmed demonstrators, special forces, rampaging mobs and groups of armed extremists from across the political spectrum.

After coming to power as democracy's champion in 1991, having crushed the hardline communist coup against President Mikhail Gorbachev, Mr Yeltsin's relationship with parliament had deteriorated until, by autumn 1993, there was stalemate.

With the "shock therapy" reform of Russia's economy, Soviet certainties had been replaced by soaring prices, job threats and the grim realisation of how far behind the West Russia really was. Reform was suddenly a dirty word, and visions of a capitalist utopia evaporated across the country.

Mr Yeltsin's parliamentary opponents harnessed the national disquiet and blocked his proposals and appointments at every turn.

In September, an exasperated Mr Yeltsin issued a decree that dissolved parliament and effectively annulled the Russian constitution. Parliament then ordered that Mr Yeltsin's powers pass to his vice-president, Mr Rutskoi.

For more than a fortnight, police dispersed protesters outside the parliament building, and Russia was in limbo. Mr Yeltsin and parliament had declared each other defunct, and the world watched rapt as the two sides faced off on Moscow's streets.

On October 3rd, gunfire erupted when about 10,000 pro-parliament demonstrators punched through police lines to get to the besieged White House; a few hundred yards away, fighting broke out around the Moscow government building.

With security across the city of 10 million in meltdown, supporters of Mr Khasbulatov and Mr Rutskoi stormed the Ostankino television centre in a bid to wrest control over Russia's airwaves from pro-Yeltsin special forces.

When a truck rammed the plate glass window of the television centre, a hail of gunfire was the reply. Mr Yeltsin's men retained control over national television, but at a grave cost - dozens of bodies lay in the dark outside Ostankino while the president went into congress with his most senior military leaders.

"There was provocation at every turn, all over the city," said Mr Rutskoi. "They wanted to force us to take action as an excuse for their violence."

Mr Khasbulatov said he had watched from the White House as his faith in Russia's fledgling democracy and its Western supporters had evaporated.

"I never thought it would end in armed conflict," he said this week of the political impasse. "I thought we'd find a way to sort things out."

But by first light on October 4th, final negotiations between the Kremlin and parliament had collapsed, and the White House was ringed by a fearsome array of armour. Military helicopters circled the parliament as troops began an assault on the building that culminated in a salvo of tank shells that echoed around the city.

Bodies began to pile up on the streets as parliamentary supporters finally surrendered to the Kremlin's troops. After Mr Yeltsin promised not to harm them, his two most bitter opponents emerged from the shattered building, and were taken away to prison.

"I think about that time every day," Mr Khasbulatov (60) told The Irish Times. "And my most powerful memory is of the spinelessness of the world's leaders. I thought other countries would stand up and say: 'What are you doing, using tanks and troops against parliament?' But no leader said anything.

"Yeltsin used parliament's support to beat the communists in the 1991 coup - and two years later no one spoke out to defend it. The world fell silent."

Mr Rutskoi (56), a former regional governor, says the world was blinded by Mr Yeltsin's image as a defender of democracy, and by Kremlin propaganda that depicted his opponents as reactionary hardliners, communists and nationalists.

"The West defended a crime then, not democracy," he said. "We were not against democracy, but against what we still face now in Russia - poverty, destitution, prostitution, drug addiction."

Mr Khasbulatov, a university professor and prolific author, says Mr Yeltsin's victory emasculated parliament, and let the increasingly unruly president rule like a tsar.

A Chechen, he says the pre-1993 parliament would never have allowed the Kremlin to wage two wars against the region's separatists, or let independent media outlets be shut down as has happened under current president Mr Vladimir Putin.

Mr Khasbulatov and Mr Rutskoi were swiftly released from jail, in what both said was Mr Yeltsin's side of a bargain with parliament that dissolved a committee to investigate who was to blame for the 1993 events.

Mr Yeltsin has called October 1993 a scar on his memory. "For the first time in my life I was tortured by the thought - had I done the right thing? Was there another option?" he wrote in his memoirs.

Mr Khasbulatov says he has not spoken to Mr Yeltsin since his tanks encircled parliament.

Mr Rutskoi claims to have tried to contact him, "to find out whether he understood what he did back then". He believes Mr Yeltsin has still not grasped the gravity of his error. "If he did understand, then he would have knelt down long ago to ask for the nation's forgiveness."