Thirty years ago, the tanks of the Russian army’s elite division Kantemirov shelled the sumptuous building of the Russian parliament called the White House, which is situated in central Moscow. The author of this article, being accredited as the Republic of Moldova’s Ambassador to the Russian Federation that year, was an eyewitness, being close to the epicenter of those events. The feeling of eyewitness to the event for the Moldovan diplomats was strengthened by the pronounced vibration of the windows of the Republic of Moldova’s embassy, whose building was situated close to the White House, after each shot by the tanks that aimed at the Russian parliament’s building.
Pseudo-reform generated economic, social and political crisis
The armed insurrection in central Moscow of October 3-4, 1993 took place against the background of an economic and political crisis into which post-Soviet Russia was plunged together with the collapse of the USSR. It is presumed that the crisis was animated by the reform program of President Yeltsin, which took effect in January 1992 already. The reform, primarily the economic one, was conceived by the authors as a radical one, without taking the social costs into account. Shortly afterward, the prices in Russia started to grow in an uncontrolled way. The government spending was drastically reduced and the authorities tried to remedy the situation by introducing new taxes. A serious loan crisis broke out and multiple industrial and agricultural enterprises went bankrupt, leading to a long-lasting economic decline. Large sections of the population became poor. An increasing number of Russian politicians started to distance themselves from the adopted reform program and the political confrontation between Yeltsin and the opponents of the presidential reform program became the dominant note of political life in Russia.
In 1992-93, the opposition to Yeltsin’s reforms turned more powerful, with Russian vice president Alexander Rutskoy being among the opponents. This denounced the President’s economic program as “economic genocide”. Throughout this period, Yeltsin fought with the Supreme Soviet and the Congress of People’s Deputies (legislative chamber from which the deputies of the Supreme Soviet came) for control over the government and the government policy. In time, Ruslan Khasbulatov, speaker of the Russian parliament, openly expressed his opposition to the reform program, despite the general support shown to Yeltsin’s policy.
Apogee of conflict between powers
The apogee of the Russian political crisis was reached on September 21, 1993, when Boris Yeltsin dissolved the federal legislature that opposed the presidential power consolidation tendency and the unpopular neo-liberal economic reforms. By his decree, the President suspended the Constitution, replacing it with a fundamental law that gave exceptional executive powers to the head of state. Yeltsin claimed that his act paved the way for the swift transition to a functional market economy and this fact secured strong support from the Western chancelleries. Concomitantly, at the level of propaganda, Yeltsin’s team persevered in concerted actions to imbed the idea of the opposition’s association with the communist restoration in the public opinion.
Vice president Rutskoy described Yeltsin’s decree as a coup and the next day the Constitutional Court decided that the President can be impeached. Consequently, the Russian parliament led by Ruslan Khasbulatov nullified the President’s decree, with Rutskoy being proclaimed acting President and taking an oath of office with a hand on the Constitution. After that moment, the conflict between the executive and the parliament of Russia, between the Kremlin and the White House, became irreconcilable. Yeltsin responded to his opponents from Parliament by cutting the water and electricity supply and the telephone connection of the Parliament Building – the White House.
Execution of Russian parliament
In September, Russian public opinion slowly changed in favor of the deputies who barricaded themselves inside the Parliament Building. In Moscow, the anti-presidential demonstrations became more intense, bringing together tens of thousands of persons who marched on the streets of the capital city and tried to support the defenders of the Parliament Building. Instead, the army and the most important Russian military commanders remained loyal to President Yeltsin. By October 3, the police lost control over the demonstrators who gathered around the White House and the political impasse turned into an armed confrontation.
On the night of October 4, a massacre occurred at the Ostankino television center where special forces and armored vehicles fired automatic firearms at the crowd that came close to the TV tower. Tens of demonstrators were killed, with hundreds being injured. On October 4, on the instruction of defense minister Grachov, six tanks of the Kantemirov division opened fire at the Parliament Building of Russia and the legislature shortly surrendered. The whole world witnessed the shelling of the Russian parliament from tanks as CNN broadcast live those evens, while the Russian channel TV6 retransmitted them.
The leaders of the defenders of the White House and some of the participants, including Alexander Rutskoy and Ruslan Khasbulatov, were arrested and taken to the Lefortovo remand prison. A criminal case was started over the Moscow mass rebellions of October 3-4, 1993. This was handled by the General Parquet of the Russian Federation. But on February 23, 1994 already, the State Duma of Russia announced political amnesty for the participants in those events. In September 1995, the criminal case was closed and was archived without making the results of the investigation public. In the end, Yeltsin’s team emerged victorious in the confrontation with the political rivals, establishing in Russia a rigid vertical of presidential power which evolved in time into the current authoritarian political regime of Putin.
Later, ex-chief of the investigation team, prosecutor Leonid Proshkin stated that the Yeltsin administration exerted pressure on the Prosecutor General’s Office and hid the evidence collected by investigators. Of the 1,350 pages of the resolution drawn up by the investigators to complete the investigation, approximately 300 were withdrawn. The number of casualties in the October 3-4, 19923 events hasn’t been yet specified, with the figures being put at 200 to 1.500.
Chisinau’s attitude marked by existence of Transnistrian separatism
Throughout that period, the Republic of Moldova’s embassy in Moscow had attentively monitored the events, informing the central government in Chisinau about the developments on the Russian political arena. The official Chisinau’s position on the political confrontations in Moscow in that period inclined towards the expression of sympathy for President Yeltsin, This way, during a working visit to Moscow on September 1, 1993, President Snegur had a meeting with Yeltsin at the Kremlin, but avoided the meeting planned with Khasbulatov, the political rival of the Russian President, that protocol mission being entrusted to Moldova’s ambassador in Moscow. Evidently irritated by the cancelation of President Snegur’s visit to the White House, Khasbulatov commented on the situation by expressing solidarity that is typical of the former representatives of the Communist nomenklatura.
In reality, President Snegur’s attitude to Yeltsin’s opponents was profoundly marked by the Transnistrian conflict. Among the ardent supporters of the separatists from Tiraspol was the vice president of Russia Alexander Rutskoy. Unlike Chisinau, the leaders of the Transnistrian separatists supported almost openly the Rutskoy-Khasbulatov camp, sending paramilitaries from Transnistria to the Russian capital to defend the White House. On October 4, the Moldovan ambassador in Moscow gave an interview for the Russian press, in which he warned about the presence of representatives of paramilitary detachments of the Transnistrian separatists among the defenders of the White House.
Separatist paramilitaries, part of conflict in Russia
Several days later, when Yeltsin’s victory didn’t generate any doubt, the Transnistrian lobby at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanded that Ambassador Țăranu should provide documentary evidence of the participation of armed Transnistrian separatists in the White House events or he would be accused of violating the diplomatic status. Only after reference was made to interview given by the Russian minister of internal affairs Erin, who on October 3 told Radio Moscow about the presence of armed Transnistrian militiamen inside the White House, the Russian diplomatic department withdrew its objections to the Moldovan ambassador.
Leonid Proshkin, former investigator for especially important cases at the General Parquet of Russia, one of the leaders of the team that investigated the events of October 3-4 in Moscow, alas spoke about the participation of representatives of “Dnestr” department of the KGB of the self-proclaimed PMR in the protection of the White House. Mentioning the participation of Transnistrian militiamen in the events in Moscow, he noted that “these were experienced fighters who had taken part in a serious war in their region. On October 4, when armored vehicles attacked the White House and it became clear that the parliament’s defenders didn’t have any chance, the Transnistrians, as the inquiry showed, left the building and disappeared. None of them was arrested. They reached Moscow with their weapons and returned to Transnistria with those weapons. Moreover, there was information that they managed to take a number of dead bodies to their homeland”.
Alexander Korzhakov, former head of Boris Yeltsin’s security, in his memoir book “From Dawn till Dusk”, confessed that among the snipers who shot at the crowd around the White House were Transnistrian fighters. So, the officials in Moscow didn’t have doubts about the role played by the separatist from Tiraspol in the events of October 3-4. During a short period of time, the presidential team was even angry with the leaders from Tiraspol. But this anger swiftly faded away against the geopolitical goals pursued by the administrator from the Kremlin – to use the Transnistrians separatism as an instrument for exerting Moscow’s imperial influence on the Republic of Moldova.
Democracy in Russia was shot back in 1993
The Moscow events of October 1993 at that moment were regarded by the authorities in Chisinau through the angle of their impact on the Transnistrian conflict. It was considered that the victory of Yeltsin’s team was the most advantageous variant for the interests of the Republic of Moldova, for the political settlement of the Transnistrian conflict and for the democratic future or Russia. In reality, Yeltsin’s political triumph represented the victory of the liberal reform parties in Russia only on the surface. In the last instance, the actions taken by Yeltsin’s team resulted in the destruction, with tank tracks, of the frail manifestations of democracy in Russian society that only overcame the communist regime. The result of the Moscow events of October 1993 materialized into the establishment of an unlimited presidential power system in Russia, which very quickly degenerated into an oligarchic system with pronounced imperial revenge pretensions. The way in which the political crisis of 1993 was resolved in Russia influenced the evolution of the political regime at the Kremlin towards a crass authoritarian one, centered on imperial revenge, which ultimately degenerated into a war in Ukraine. The hope to see a democratic Russia was shot from tanks back in 1993, even if the international community realized this truth only after many years.
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