For once Boris Yeltsin was true to his word. He had said in public that August would be the month of “artillery preparations” and September the time of the clash. On September 21, at 8 P.M. Moscow time, he duly staged his pronunciamento. Addressing the Russians on TV, he announced the dissolution of the present Supreme Soviet and Congress of People’s Deputies and announced elections for an entirely new parliament for December 11 and 12 (with presidential elections in a splendidly uncertain future). All this, whatever Secretary of State Warren Christopher may think, is perfectly unconstitutional, but will it be effective? The other side did not fold. The Supreme Soviet at once dismissed Yeltsin and proclaimed his deputy, Aleksandr Rutskoi, Acting President. A few hours later, the Constitutional Court backed this version, suggesting that Yeltsin’s conduct deserved impeachment, while Ruslan Khasbulatov, Speaker of Parliament, summoned the Congress to Moscow. With the army declaring its “neutrality,” to borrow the first words of the Defense Ministry spokesman, can Yeltsin impose his authority or will he, once again, cross the Rubicon merely to start bargaining on the other side?
As we go to press, the trial of strength is on and the question cannot be answered. Yet the conflict did not come out of the blue. Tho years after the August putsch, with galloping inflation, slumping production, rising crime and a serious threat of national collapse, Russia is obviously on the brink. But on the brink of what? In retracing the background we shall go beyond the one-sided Yeltsinian versions peddled by the Western press and try to show what the stakes are and who are the real protagonists in this dubious battle.
The fight between President and Parliament is not new. The last important round was staged in April, when Yeltsin managed to win a referendum, but only on points, rather than by a knockout, and it proved a defeat in disguise. The President did not get the share of the vote he needed to dissolve Parliament, and there were too many abstentions among registered voters for him to claim a moral mandate to do so. Naturally, most of the media, manipulated by Yeltsin’s henchman. Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Poltoranin, have been claiming that he does have such a mandate. And the President quickly called a special conference designed to reshape the Constitution. But the conference, while it might have produced a compromise, could hardly impose its views upon a Parliament that, whatever one may think of it, had been duly elected.
Yeltsin’s next gimmick for constitutional change was a plan merely to set up a Federal Council composed of representatives of the autonomous republics and oblasts (regions) of the Russian Federation. If constituted, this body would then sponsor a new charter. But as long as the Supreme Soviet refused to endorse the project, the Yeltsinites could introduce a new Constitution only by unconstitutional means. For Yeltsin the apparatchik this would not have mattered. He would have easily found a “Marxist” hack to explain that constitutions, like laws, merely reflect the balance of forces within a country. The snag is that he and his supporters present themselves as born-again constitutionalists and defenders of the rule of law.
There is also a more cynical explanation for Yeltsin’s delayed reaction: To carry out a coup he needed the backing of the army and the police, which he doesn’t seem to have. Whatever the reason may have been, the lawbreakers were not restrained by fear of foreign opprobrium. The Western media pretend that Yeltsin has a mandate to do whatever he wants to do-even change the rules of the game if they are inconvenient. And Western officialdom now says the same.
The indulgence of the Western press is not limited to constitutional matters. When it comes to corruption and its toleration, Russia’s rulers are also allowed to get away with preposterous behavior. Last April, during the referendum campaign, Rutskoi leveled accusations of corruption against two of Yeltsin’s closest supporters, the aforementioned Poltoranin and First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Shumeiko. Yeltsin’s response was not to suspend his underlings but to remove Rutskoi from his position as head of the commission investigating corruption, Since then, several important figures, including Minister of Security Viktor Barannikov, have been ousted from their jobs, apparently because their activity threatened the interests of Yeltsin’s camarilla. (In retrospect the move may have been connected with the projected putsch.)