Renaissance or ruin? Yeltsin’s desperation dismantles democracy

By Stephen F. Cohen
October 10, 1993

AS THE POSSIBILITY of dictatorship looms yet again over Russia, the Yeltsin government is relentlessly imposing an epic spin on last week’s carnage in Moscow. Russia’s political winners have usually enforced their might-makes-right version of events as the nation’s official history, but this is the first time it has ever been echoed and endorsed by an American government.According to President Boris Yeltsin, he had to order special military forces to attack the nation’s parliament with tank fire and arrest his two leading political rivals, Vice President Alexander Rutskoi and Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, because they had launched a “criminal mutiny” against Russia’s democracy. President Clinton says approvingly that “if such a thing happened in the United States,” he too would have taken “tough action.” But who actually began that “mutiny”?

In fact, on Sept. 21, Yeltsin dealt a wounding, possibly fatal, blow to Russia’s historic and exceedingly fragile democratization experiment by terminating parliament and all other elements of rule-of-law government in Moscow. He had tried but failed to do exactly the same thing on March 20. In the intervening months, respected Russian political observers, including members of his own entourage, warned that such a step would certainly lead to substantial violence, if only because many parliamentary deputies believed in their own democratic legitimacy and would resist. Knowing all this, Yeltsin nonetheless struck again, with the predictable outcome we have witnessed.