Russian constitutional crisis of 1993

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 was President of the  at the time of the crisis.
Boris Yeltsin was President of the Russian Federation at the time of the crisis.

The Russian constitutional crisis of 1993 began in earnest on September 21, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin dissolved the country's parliament, which was increasingly opposing his moves to consolidate power and embark on unpopular neoliberal reforms. He was not allowed to do this under the then-functioning constitution; after the fact, he ordered a referendum on a new constitution.

The parliament refused to dissolve, declaring Yeltsin's presidency unconstitutional. In open rebellion against Yeltsin, it appointed its own acting president. On September 28, public protests against Yeltsin's government began in earnest in the streets of Moscow, and the first blood was shed. Yeltsin's supporters surrounded the parliament building (the "Russian White House"), where the representatives and their newly-appointed leaders were staying, with barricades. For the next week, protests in the street grew, until a mass uprising erupted in the city on October 2. Russia was on the brink of civil war. At this point the military threw their support behind Yeltsin, besieged the parliament building, and slowly forced the opposing faction out over the next six days. By October 8, the "second October Revolution" had been crushed. The ten-day conflict had seen the most deadly street fighting in Moscow since the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917: 187 had been killed and 437 wounded, according to possibly conservative government estimates.


Origins of the crisis

The intensifying executive-legislative power struggle

Yeltsin's reform program took effect on January 2, 1992 (see Russian economic reform in the 1990s for background information). Soon afterward prices skyrocketed, government spending was slashed, and heavy new taxes went into effect. A deep credit crunch shut down many industries and brought about a protracted depression. Certain politicians began quickly to distance themselves from the program; and increasingly the ensuing political confrontation between Yeltsin on the one side, and the opposition to radical economic reform on the other, became centered in the two branches of government.

Throughout 1992, opposition to Yeltsin's reform policies grew stronger and more intractable among bureaucrats concerned about the condition of Russian industry and among regional leaders who wanted more independence from Moscow. Russia's vice president, Aleksandr Rutskoy, denounced the Yeltsin program as "economic genocide."1 Leaders of oil-rich republics such as Tatarstan and Bashkiria called for full independence from Russia.

Also throughout 1992, Yeltsin wrestled with the Supreme Soviet (the standing legislature) and the Russian Congress of People's Deputies (the country's highest legislative body, from which the Supreme Soviet members were drawn) for control over government and government policy. In 1992 the speaker of the Russian Supreme Soviet, Ruslan Khasbulatov, came out in opposition to the reforms, despite claiming to support Yeltsin's overall goals.

Pre-crisis parliament speaker and -born , Ruslan Khasbulatov now focuses largely on his academic career. He has lately reemerged in Russian politics as a leading critic of .
Pre-crisis parliament speaker and Chechen-born economist, Ruslan Khasbulatov now focuses largely on his academic career. He has lately reemerged in Russian politics as a leading critic of Russia's war in Chechnya. (2003)

The president was concerned about the terms of the constitutional amendments passed in late 1991, which meant that his special powers of decree were set to expire by the end of 1992 (Yeltsin expanded the powers of the presidency beyond normal constitutional limits in carrying out the reform program). Yeltsin, awaiting implementation of his privatization program, demanded that parliament reinstate his decree powers (only parliament had the authority to replace or amend the constitution). But in the Russian Congress of People's Deputies and in the Supreme Soviet, the deputies refused to adopt a new constitution that would enshrine the scope of presidential powers demanded by Yeltsin into law.

The seventh session of the Congress of People's Deputies (CPD)

During its December session the parliament clashed with Yeltsin on a number of issues, and the conflict came to a head on December 9 when the parliament refused to confirm Yegor Gaidar, the widely unpopular architect of Russia's "shock therapy" market liberalizations, as prime minister. The parliament refused to nominate Gaidar, demanding modifications of the economic program and directed the Central Bank, which was under the parliament's control, to continue issuing credits to enterprises to keep them from shutting down.2

In an angry speech the next day on December 10, Yeltsin deemed the congress as a "fortress of conservative and reactionary forces." Parliament responded by voting to take control of the parliamentary army.

On December 12, Yeltsin and parliament speaker Khasbulatov agreed on a compromise that included the following provisions: (1) a national referendum on framing a new Russian constitution to be held in April 1993; (2) most of Yeltsin's emergency powers were extended until the referendum; (3) the parliament asserted its right to nominate and vote on its own choices for prime minister; and (4) the parliament asserted its right to reject the president's choices to head the Defense, Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Security ministries. Yeltsin nominated Viktor Chernomyrdin to be prime minister on December 14, and the parliament confirmed him.

Yeltsin's December 1992 compromise with the seventh Congress of the People's Deputies temporarily backfired. Early 1993 saw increasing tension between Yeltsin and the parliament over the language of the referendum and power sharing. In a series of collisions over policy, the congress whittled away the president's extraordinary powers, which it had granted him in late 1991. The legislature, marshaled by Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, began to sense that it could block and even defeat the president. The tactic that it adopted was gradually to erode presidential control over the government. In response, the president called a referendum on a constitution for April 11.

The eighth session of the CPD

The eighth Congress of People's Deputies opened on March 10 with a strong attack on the president by Khasbulatov, who accused Yeltsin of acting unconstitutionally. In mid-March 1993, an emergency session of the Congress of People's Deputies voted to amend the constitution, strip Yeltsin of many of his powers, and cancel the scheduled April referendum, again opening the door to legislation that would shift the balance of power away from the president. The president stalked out of the congress. Vladimir Shumeyko, first deputy prime minister, declared that the referendum would go ahead, but on April 25.

The parliament was gradually expanding its influence over the government. On March 16 the president signed a decree that conferred Cabinet rank on Viktor Gerashchenko, chairman of the central bank, and three other officials; this was in accordance with the decision of the eighth congress that these officials should be members of the government. The congress' ruling, however, had made it clear that as ministers they would continue to be subordinate to parliament.

The "special regime"

The president's response was dramatic. On March 20 Yeltsin addressed the nation directly to declare that he intended to introduce a "special regime," under which he would assume extraordinary executive power pending the results of a referendum on the timing of new legislative elections, on a new constitution, and on public confidence in the president and vice president. Yeltsin also bitterly attacked the parliament, accusing the deputies of trying to restore the Soviet-era order.

Vice President Rutskoy, a key Yeltsin opponent, condemned Yeltsin's declaration as a grab for special powers. After the Constitutional Court ruled that Yeltsin had indeed acted unconstitutionally, Yeltsin backed down.

The ninth session of the CPD

The ninth congress, which opened on March 26, began with an extraordinary session of the Congress of People's Deputies taking up discussions of emergency measures to defend the constitution, including impeachment of President Yeltsin. Yeltsin conceded that he had made mistakes and reached out to swing voters in parliament. Yeltsin narrowly survived an impeachment vote on March 28, votes for impeachment falling 72 short of the 689 votes needed for a 2/3 majority.

National referendum

The referendum would go ahead, but since the impeachment vote failed, the Congress of People's Deputies sought to set new terms for a popular referendum. The legislature's version of the referendum asked whether citizens had confidence in Yeltsin, approved of his reforms, and supported early presidential and legislative elections. The parliament voted that in order to win, the president would need to obtain 50 percent of the whole electorate, rather than 50 percent of those actually voting, to avoid an early presidential election.

This time, the Constitutional Court supported Yeltsin and ruled that the president required only a simple majority on two issues: confidence in him, and economic and social policy; he would need the support of half the electorate in order to call new parliamentary and presidential elections.

Yeltsin's gamble paid off in the referendum, on April 25. A majority of voters expressed confidence in the president and called for new legislative elections. Yeltsin termed the results a mandate for him to continue in power. Although this permitted the president to declare that the population supported him, not the parliament, he lacked a constitutional mechanism to implement his victory. As before, the president had to appeal to the people over the heads of the legislature.

The constitutional convention

In an attempt to outmaneuver the parliament, Yeltsin decreed the creation of a large conference of political leaders from a wide range of government institutions, regions, public organizations, and political parties in June— a "special constitutional convention" to examine the draft constitution that he had presented in April. After much hesitation, the Constitutional Committee of the Congress of People's Deputies decided to participate and present its own draft constitution. Of course, the two main drafts contained contrary views of legislative-executive relations.

Some 700 representatives at the conference ultimately adopted a draft constitution on July 12 that envisaged a bicameral legislature and the dissolution of the congress. But because the convention's draft of the constitution would dissolve the congress, there was little likelihood that the congress would vote itself into oblivion. The Supreme Soviet immediately rejected the draft and declared that the Congress of People's Deputies was the supreme lawmaking body and hence would decide on the new constitution.

The parliament was active in July, while the president was on vacation, and passed a number of decrees that revised economic policy in order to "end the division of society." It also launched investigations of key advisers of the president, accusing them of corruption. The president returned in August and declared that he would deploy all means, including circumventing the constitution, to achieve new parliamentary elections.

Clashes of power in September

The president launched his offensive on September 1 when he attempted to suspend Vice President Rutskoy, a key adversary. Rutskoy, elected on the same ticket as Yeltsin in 1991, was the president's automatic successor. A presidential spokesman said that he had been suspended because of "accusations of corruption." On September 3, the Supreme Soviet rejected Yeltsin's suspension of Rutskoy and referred the question to the Constitutional Court.

Two weeks later he declared that he would agree to call early presidential elections provided that the parliament also called elections. The parliament ignored him. On September 18, Yeltsin then named Yegor Gaidar, who had been forced out of office by parliamentary opposition in 1992, a deputy prime minister and a deputy premier for economic affairs. This appointment was unacceptable to the Supreme Soviet, which emphatically rejected it.

Yeltsin dissolves parliament

On September 21, 1993, Yeltsin responded to the impasse in legislative-executive relations by repeating his announcement of a constitutional referendum, but this time he followed the announcement by dissolving the parliament and announcing new legislative elections for December. He also scrapped the constitution, replacing it with one that gave him extraordinary executive powers. (According to the new plan, the lower house would have 450 deputies and be called the State Duma, the name of the Russian legislature before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The Federation Council, which would bring together representatives from the 89 subdivisions of the Russian Federation, would play the role of an upper house.)

Yeltsin claimed that by dissolving the Russian parliament in September 1993 he was clearing the tracks for a rapid transition to a functioning market economy. With this pledge, he received strong backing from the leading capitalist powers of the West and the other Soviet successor states. Yeltsin's biggest political asset has always been his close relationship to the Western powers, particularly the United States, but this has left him open to charges in Russia of being an agent of foreign interests and of groveling before the West.

Parliament invalidates Yeltsin's presidency

Rutskoy called Yeltsin's move a step toward a coup d'etat. The next day, the Constitutional Court held that Yeltsin had violated the constitution and could be impeached. During an all-night session, chaired by Khasbulatov, parliament declared the president's decree null and void. Rutskoy was proclaimed president and took the oath on the constitution. He dismissed Yeltsin and the key ministers Pavel Grachev (defense), Nikolay Golushko (security), and Viktor Yerin (interior). Russia now had two presidents and two ministers of defense, security, and interior. It was dual power in earnest. Although Gennady Zyuganov and other top leaders of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation did not participate in the events, individual members of communist organizations actively supported the parliament.

On September 24, an undaunted Yeltsin announced presidential elections for June 1994. The same day, the Congress of People's Deputies voted to hold simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections by March 1994.3 Yeltsin scoffed at the parliament backed-proposal for simultaneous elections, and responded the next day by cutting off electricity, phone service, and hot water in the parliament building.

Missing image
Anti-Yeltsin demonstrators rally outside the parliament building, known as the "White House," before the army crackdown on October 4.

Mass protests in Moscow

Yeltsin also sparked popular unrest with his dissolution of a parliament increasingly opposed to his neoliberal economic reforms. Between September 21–24, the general atmosphere changed in favor of the defenders of the parliament. Moscow saw what amounted to a spontaneous mass uprising of anti-Yeltsin demonstrators numbering in the tens of thousands marching in the streets resolutely seeking to aid forces defending the parliament building.

The demonstrators were protesting against the new and terrible living conditions under Yeltsin. Since 1989 GDP had declined by half. Corruption was rampant, violent crime was skyrocketing, medical services were collapsing, food and fuel were increasingly scarce and life expectancy was falling for all but a tiny handful of the population; moreover, Yeltsin was increasingly getting the blame. 4 Outside Moscow, the Russian masses overall were confused and disorganized. Nonetheless, some of them also tried to voice their protest. Sporadic strikes took place across Russia.

On September 28, Moscow saw the first bloody clashes between the special police and anti-Yeltsin demonstrators. This repression of the mass demonstrations in Moscow had a comparable effect to that meted out by the French police to the students in the May 1968 rebellion that nearly culminated in the fall of Charles de Gaulle. It rallied them for a mass protest action, but one that the popular demonstrators would ultimately lose.

Also on September 28, the Interior Ministry moved to seal off the parliament building. Barricades and wire were put around the building. On October 1, the Interior Ministry estimated that 600 fighting men with a large cache of arms had joined Yeltsin's political opponents in the parliament building. On September 30, the first barricades were built.

The barricading of the parliament

October 2 and October 3 were the culmination of violent clashes with the police. On October 2, supporters of parliament constructed barricades and blocked traffic on Moscow's main streets. On the afternoon of October 3, armed opponents of Yeltsin stormed the police cordon around the White House territory (where the Russian parliament was barricaded). Crowds supporting parliament also seized the Moscow City Mayor offices, overrunning pro-Yeltsin forces.

Aleksandr Rutskoy, barricaded inside the White House, hailed the protesting crowd. Rutskoy greeted the crowds from the White House balcony, and urged them to go on to seize the national television center at Ostankino. Khasbulatov also called for the storming of the Kremlin. With some people already dead on the streets, Yeltsin declared a state of emergency in Moscow.

The leaders of parliament were still not discounting the prospects of a compromise with Yeltsin. The Russian Orthodox Church acted as a host to desultory discussions between representatives of the parliament and the president. The negotiations with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch as mediator continued until October 2. On the afternoon of October 3, Moscow police failed to control a demonstration near the White House, and the political impasses developed into armed conflict.

The storming of the Russian White House

Between October 2–4, the position of the army was the deciding factor. The military equivocated for several hours about how to respond to Yeltsin's call for action. By this time dozens of people had been killed and hundreds had been wounded.

Rutskoy, as a former general, appealed to some of his ex-colleagues. After all, many officers and especially rank-and-file soldiers had little sympathy for Yeltsin. But the supporters of the parliament did not send any emissaries to the barracks to recruit lower-ranking officer corps, making the fatal mistake of attempting to deliberate only among high-ranking military officials who already had close ties to parliamentary leaders. In the end, a prevailing bulk of the generals did not want to take their chances with a Rutskoy-Khasbulatov regime. Some generals had stated their intention to back the parliament, but at the last moment moved over to Yeltsin's side.

There was also the role played by the special police and the brute force of the special units of the Ministry of the Interior. On the evening of October 3, after taking the mayor's office, anti-Yeltsin demonstrators marched toward Ostankino, the television center. But the pro-parliament crowds were met at the television complex by Interior Ministry units. A pitched battle followed. Part of TV center was significantly damaged. Television stations went off the air and 62 people were killed. Before midnight, the Interior Ministry's units had turned back the parliament loyalists.

Missing image

On October 4, army tanks began to shell the White House. By sunrise, October 5, the Russian army encircled the parliament building. Troops entered the White House and began to occupy it, floor by floor. Hostilities were stopped several times to allow some in the White House to leave, but Khasbulatov and Rutskoy stayed to the bitter end before surrendering. Many in the building, including Rutskoy and Khasbulatov, were taken away in the end in buses. By mid-afternoon, popular resistance in the streets was completely suppressed, barring an occasional sniper's fire.

Crushing the "second October Revolution," which, as mentioned, saw the deadliest street fighting in Moscow since 1917, cost hundreds of lives. Police said, on October 8, that 187 had died in the conflict and 437 had been wounded. Unofficial sources named much higher numbers, up to 1500 dead, mostly inside the White House. In any event, nearly all victims were killed by troops, loyal to Yeltsin. Russian Army and Interior Ministry lost 12 soldiers, at least 9 of which were accidentally killed by their own men. It had been a close call; Yeltsin owed his victory to the military, the former KGB, and the Ministry of Interior, not to support from the regions or a popular base of support.

But he was backed by the military only grudgingly, and at the eleventh hour. The instruments of coercion gained the most, and they would expect Yeltsin to reward them in the future. A paradigmatic example of this was General Pavel Grachev, who had demonstrated his loyalty during this crisis. Grachev became a key political figure, despite many years of charges that he was linked to corruption within the Russian military.5

The crisis was a strong example of the problems of executive-legislative balance in Russia's presidential system, and, moreover, the likelihood of conflict of a zero-sum character and the absence of obvious mechanisms to resolve it.6 In the end, this was a battle of competing legitimacy of the executive and the legislature, won by the side that could muster the support of the ultimate instruments of coercion.7

Public opinion on crisis

The Russian public opinion research institute VCIOM (VTsIOM) conducted a poll in the aftermath of October 1993 events and found out that 51% of those polled thought that the use of military force by Yeltsin was justified and 30% thought it was not justified. The support for Yeltsin's actions declined in the later years. When VCIOM-A asked the same question in 2003, only 20% agreed with the use of the military, with 57% opposed.

When asked about the main cause of the events of October 3-4, 46% in the 1993 VCIOM poll blamed Rutskoy and Khasbullatov. However, ten years following the crisis, the most popular culprit was the legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev with 31%, closely followed by Yeltsin's policies with 29%.

Yeltsin's consolidation of power

Immediate aftermath

In the weeks following the storming of the Russian White House, Yeltsin issued a barrage of presidential decrees intended to consolidate his position. On October 5, Yeltsin banned political leftist and nationalist parties and newspapers that had supported the parliament. In an address to the nation on October 6, Yeltsin also called on those regional councils that had opposed him—by far the majority—to disband. Valery Zorkin, chairman of the Constitutional Court, was forced to resign. The chairman of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions was also sacked, and the president took the opportunity to deprive trade unions of many of their administrative functions so as to whittle away their direct working ties to their rank-and-file membership.

Yeltsin decreed, on October 12, that both houses of parliament would be elected in December. On October 15, he ordered that a popular referendum be held in December on a new constitution. Rutskoy and Khasbulatov were charged on October 15 with "organizing mass disorders" and imprisoned. They were later released in 1994 when Yeltsin's position was sufficiently secure.

"Russia needs order," Yeltsin told the Russian people in a television broadcast in November in introducing his new draft of the constitution, which was to be put to a referendum on December 12. The new basic law would concentrate sweeping powers in the hands of the president. The bicameral legislature, to sit for only two years, was restricted in crucial areas. The president could choose the prime minister even if the parliament objected and could appoint the military leadership without parliamentary approval. He would head and appoint the members of a new, more powerful security council. If a vote of no confidence in the government was passed, the president would be enabled to keep it in office for three months and could dissolve the parliament if it repeated the vote. The president could veto any bill passed by a simple majority in the lower house, after which a two-thirds majority would be required for the legislation to be passed. The president could not be impeached for contravening the constitution. The central bank would become independent, but the president would need the approval of the State Duma to appoint the bank's governor, who would thereafter be independent of the parliament. At the time, most political observers regarded the draft constitution as shaped by and for Yeltsin and perhaps unlikely to survive him.

The end of the first constitutional period

On December 12, Yeltsin managed to push through his new constitution, creating a strong presidency and giving the president sweeping powers to issue decrees. (For details on the constitution passed in 1993 see the Constitution and government structure of Russia.)

However, the parliament elected on the same day (with a turnout of about 53%) delivered a stunning rebuke to his neoliberal economic program. Candidates identified with Yeltsin's economic policies were overwhelmed by a huge protest vote, the bulk of which was divided between the Communists (who mostly drew their support from industrial workers, out-of-work bureaucrats, some professionals, and pensioners) and the ultra-nationalists (who drew their support from disaffected elements of the lower middle classes). Unexpectedly, the most surprising insurgent group proved to be the Liberal Democratic Party (whose program was neither liberal nor democratic). It gained 23% of the vote while the Gaidar led 'Russia's Choice' received 15.5% and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, 12.4%. LDPR leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, alarmed many observers abroad with his neo-fascist, chauvinist declarations.

Nevertheless, the referendum marked the end of the constitutional period defined by the constitution adopted by the Russian SFSR in 1978, which was amended many times while Russia was a part of Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union. (For further details on the democratization of the former Soviet Union, see History of the Soviet Union (1985–1991).) Although Russia would emerge as a dual presidential-parliamentary system in theory, substantial power would rest in the president's hands. Russia now has a prime minister who heads a cabinet and directs the administration, but the system is an example of presidentialism with the cover of a presidential prime minister, not an effective semipresidential constitutional model. (The premier, for example, is appointed, and in effect freely dismissed, by the president.)

Notes and references

1 Celestine Bohlen, "Yeltsin Deputy Calls Reforms 'Economic Genocide,'" New York Times, February 9, 1992.
2 The Central Bank's efforts got in the way of pro-Yeltsin, Western-oriented leaders were seeking to carry out a decisive neoliberal economic transformation of Russia. They undermined the regime of fiscal austerity that the Yeltsin government was attempting to pursue. See, e.g., Thomas F. Remington, Politics in Russia (New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc., 2002), p. 50.
3 For further details see Margaret Shapiro, "Yeltsin Dissolves Parliament, Orders New Vote," Washington Post, September 22, 1993. (
4 It is still hotly debated among Western economists, social scientists, and policymakers as to whether or not the IMF-, World Bank-, and U.S. Treasury Department-backed reform policies adopted in Russia, often called "shock therapy," were responsible for Russia's poor record of economic performance in the 1990s. Under the Western-backed economic program adopted by Yeltsin, the Russian government took several radical measures at once that were supposed to stabilize the economy by bringing state spending and revenues into balance and by letting market demand determine the prices and supply of goods. Under the reforms, the government let most prices float, raised taxes, and cut back sharply on spending in industry and construction. These policies caused widespread hardship as many state enterprises found themselves without orders or financing. The rationale of the program was to squeeze the built-in inflationary pressure out of the economy so that producers would begin making sensible decisions about production, pricing and investment instead of chronically overusing resources, as in the Soviet era. By letting the market rather than central planers determine prices, product mixes, output levels, and the like, the reformers intended to create an incentive structure in the economy where efficiency and risk would be rewarded and waste and carelessness were punished. Removing the causes of chronic inflation, the reform's architects argued, was a precondition for all other reforms: Hyperinflation would wreck both democracy and economic progress, they argued; only by stabilizing the state budget could the government proceed to restructure the economy. A similar reform program had been adopted in Poland in January 1990, with generally favorable results. However, Western critics of Yeltsin's reform, most notably Joseph Stiglitz and Marshall Goldman (who would have favored a more "gradual" transition to market capitalism), consider policies adopted in Poland ill-suited for Russia, given that the impact of communism on the Polish economy and political culture was far less indelible. [1] (
5 For further details see, "Pavel Grachev" [2] ( Updated March 12, 2003
6 Since the release of Argentine political scientist Juan Linz's 1985 influential essay "Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy: Does it Make a Difference?" the argument that presidentialism is less likely to sustain stable democratic regimes has gained widespread currency in Western comparative politics literature. According to Linz, conflict is always latent between the president and the legislature due to competing claims to legitimacy derived from the same source: electoral mandates from the very same body of citizens. Thus, a conflict can escalate dramatically since it cannot be resolved through rules, procedures, negotiations, or compromise.
7 See, e.g., Stephen White, "Russia: Presidential Leadership under Yeltsin," in Ray Taras, ed., Postcommunist Presidents (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 57–61.

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