Moscow Times. August 16, 2001
Democrats Mourn Dashed '91 Hopes
By Valeria Korchagina
Ten years after they defied a coup to defend democracy, some of the leading political players of those heady days spoke of their disappointment Wednesday at the later betrayal of those democratic ideals.
People who literally helped make history in the early 1990s - Alexander Rutskoi, Ruslan Khasbulatov, Sergei Filatov and Gennady Burbulis among them - had little to celebrate on Wednesday.
Many blamed Boris Yeltsin for the country's incomplete transition to democracy. "It will be the next generation that will be able to examine the situation. Today, there are still people around who were on both sides of the barricades," Rutskoi said at a roundtable with more than a dozen prominent figures from those early days.
Rutskoi was Yeltsin's vice president, and in August 1991 he was right beside him at the White House, leading the resistance to the reactionary coup. Just two years later, Rutskoi joined parliament in an armed standoff against Yeltsin, which ended with Yeltsin ordering tanks to fire on the same White House that Rutskoi and thousands of others had so bravely defended.
Since then, the disillusionment has only grown. Rutskoi said the four years he spent as governor of the Kursk region, from 1996 to 2000, left him in despair over the poverty and economic problems deepening in Russia.
"There is only one definition for the past 10 years: It is a gradual transition from political menopause [of the last years of the Soviet Union] to political egoism and cynicism," Rutskoi said.
Many agreed with Rutskoi that people's expectations were not fulfilled and precious time for political and economic reforms was wasted. In the past 10 years, Russia has failed to resolve key issues like ownership of land, creation of a civil society and securing a democratic transition of power, the participants said.
They said the collapse of the Soviet Union, the unintended result of the coup attempt, was a tragedy but inevitable and could not be blamed on Yeltsin, as it so often is. Only the coup plotters could be held responsible for speeding up the process.
"The appearance of the GKChP [the State Committee on a State of Emergency] only made the collapse of the U.S.S.R. faster, but the decaying processes were under way and the end was inevitable," said Khasbulatov, the speaker of the Supreme Soviet who also turned against Yeltsin in 1993.
After the coup collapsed, a number of Soviet republics declared independence and by the end of the year the Soviet Union had ceased to exist.
Yevgeny Yasin, a prominent Soviet economist who later served as Yeltsin's economics minister, said holding the Soviet Union together was incompatible with democracy.
"We had to choose: either we want a democratic society or we want an empire," he said. "We destroyed a totalitarian regime."
It was Yeltsin's actions after he became the leader of an independent Russia that came in for heavy criticism from the men who were once close to him.
Yury Chernichenko, a former Yeltsin aide, said Yeltsin's failure to resolve the land issue has held Russia back. "The only issue Yeltsin was less interested in than land and agriculture was probably soccer," Chernichenko said. With his mass support following the coup, Yeltsin could have resolved the issue of private ownership of land within a month, he said.
Oleg Rumyantsev, a constitutional scholar who worked on an early draft of what became the 1993 Constitution, said the democrats themselves must share the blame for Russia's failings.
"It was us who chose Yeltsin. … It was you, deputies, who gave the president so many powers," Rumyantsev said, referring to the Constitution pushed through parliament by Yeltsin. "What we have now is a powerless parliament and problems such as the absence of a civil society."
Some of these early democrats and Yeltsin supporters said they were most alarmed at the path Russia is taking under President Vladimir Putin. Putin has been restoring centralized control and, his critics say, clamping down on the very civil liberties that the early democrats were fighting for.
"What was Yeltsin, what were all of us fighting for in August 1991? Was it only for the winners and losers to change places?" said Sergei Yushenkov, an early democrat and deputy in all Russian parliaments since the end of the 1980s.
"This is exactly what has happened. The losers feel like winners. And this is very dangerous." Rutskoi also complained that those in power today have little in common with those who stood on the threshold of democracy 10 years ago.
"But isn't that what democracy is about?" cut in Burbulis, a philosophy professor who once was Yeltsin's closest adviser and today is the deputy head of the Novgorod administration.
Some, like Yury Afanasyev, also a first-wave democrat, were pessimistic to the point of saying that the only winner of all the battles of the past decade is the state apparatus, or nomenklatura.
He said the key to Yeltsin's success in 1991 was the support of middle-level bureaucrats, who by that time had acquired a taste for the money to be made through private enterprise.
"And the choice of Putin is also the nomenklatura's choice," Afanasyev said. "They saw that the ailing Yeltsin may not be able to protect their interests any longer."
Filatov, also an early democrat and once Yeltsin's chief of staff, said not all the achievements of August 1991 were wasted. "Some problems were tackled and some solved, even if in a deformed and distorted way. … There is some movement forward."