Thursday, October 3, 2013

20th Anniversary of a Game-Changing Constitutional Crisis

Twenty years ago, Russia faced a turning point in its nascent democracy. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, Boris Yeltsin embarked on economic reforms, putting aside political reforms for the future. Legislative institutions were still dominated by deputies elected during the Communist era, and they opposed most of Yeltsin's economic agenda. Over the course of 1993, conflict escalated between the executive and legislative branches* and encompassed not only economic decisions but basic questions of constitutional order and the rule of law.

From October 2-4, 1993, the crisis escalated: legislators occupied the Russian "White House", attempted to take control of the main television tower, and engaged in firefights in the streets of Moscow. On October 4, government forces attacked the White House with tanks and special troops, leading to a victory for Boris Yeltsin. But, the win was Pyrrhic for democracy, as Yeltsin set the precedent for extra-constitutional means to trump constitutional provisions.** He could have embarked on wide-ranging political reforms in the early days after the USSR's demise. But, Yeltsin did not recognize how important it was to create democratic political institutions and abide by them, nor did he recognize how political and economic institutions are intertwined in a democratic society.

RFE/RL has a retrospective of the main players and the implications of this tragic event.

*The Russian Constitutional Court notably supported the views of the legislature, even ruling unconstitutional measures proposed by Yeltsin in a public speech.

**At the time, the communist and nationalist affiliations of the legislators were "proof" that they were the "bad guys" and that Yeltsin, who defied Soviet authorities and helped bring about an end to the USSR was the "good guy."

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