Russian Crisis: A nation teetering on brink of civil war: The hardliners have failed to understand the nature of violent change - once it has been started it can never be stopped, argues Steve Crawshaw

Steve Crawshaw
Sunday 03 October 1993 23:02 BST

MOSCOW today has none of the moral simplicity of Bucharest 1989, nor even of Moscow 1991. Rather, Russia stands on the edge of an abyss - smutnoe vremya, or time of troubles which the country has already experienced on different occasions.

The most recent equivalent of the current unrest could be the civil war that lasted for several years after the revolution of 1917, before the Bolsheviks finally consolidated their power.

And yet, despite the chaos, it would be wrong to write off the process of democratic change. The fighting in Bucharest paved the way for the break-up of the Ceausescu dictatorship; the August coup, intended to turn the clock back, merely led to to the collapse of Soviet Communism. So it may prove to be on this occasion.

Theoretically, at least, Mr Yeltsin has few cards to play. If the rebels hold the television station, they hold great power.

Equally, the disenchantment of ordinary Russians with all forms of politics - putting a meal on the table is all that most care about - puts some doubt over the suggestion that people power could save Mr Yeltsin.

But the Russian leader has won many impossible battles before and emerged, strengthened, from almost certain defeat. In 1987 he was sacked by Mikhail Gorbachev for demanding more radical change; the Soviet leader, already the darling of the West, told him that he would not return to power. In 1989, Mr Yeltsin gained 90 per cent of a popular vote in elections which the Kremlin had partly rigged against him. In spring 1991, a rebellion against him by Communists in the Russian parliament backfired disastrously when Mr Yeltsin outmanoeuvred his opponents, and became the first popularly elected Russian president. In August 1991, he gained his most famous victory, when he stood on a tank outside the Russian parliament and proclaimed defiance against the coup.

Finally, in spring 1993, a similar clash of wills between Boris Yeltsin and the parliament seemed to mark a political death sentence for him. And, yet again, he emerged strengthened, with a popular referendum which provided a vote of confidence, not just for Mr Yeltsin personally, but even for his painful economic reforms.

The dramas of recent weeks, when he attempted the political castration of the obstructive parliament, followed a similar pattern. In theory, there was no democratic justification for Mr Yeltsin's actions, nor any reason why his actions should succeed. But the reality, until now, has been different.

Mr Yeltsin's promise of free elections in December, and presidential elections six months later, made it clear to Russians that they were not being asked to knuckle under. They were being offered a real choice for the future - for the first time.

The supporters of the Russian parliament can produce all sorts of arguments which appear to back up their case that it is they who are the true democrats.

But - assuming that the President keeps, and is allowed to keep, his promise - the carrot of elections dramatically weakens the anti-Yeltsin case.

So, too, does the rag-tag Communist rabble supporting the parliament. Anybody who thinks of supporting the parliament needs only to listen to its supporters, with their Communist slogans and anti-Semitic abuse, to realise how much of a step backwards the appointment of a Rutskoi or a Khasbulatov would be.

Mr Yeltsin's greatest mistake may be if he uses force against the rebels. It is the parliamentary opposition which has encouraged violent confrontation.

Russians have no money, and are disillusioned with all politicians, including Boris Yeltsin. They have no experience of democracy. Because of the spiralling crime, they are grateful for anyone who promises a return to order, however illusory those promises may be. But that is not the whole story, as the referendum in the spring showed. Given a choice between painful and erratic progress towards democracy and the market economy, on the one hand, and the siren blandishments of the parliament, on the other, Russians chose the former. In doing so, they confounded all the pessimists. They no longer believe in absurdly simple solutions.

In the West, it is often suggested that what counts is military might: he who has the army will win. But the revolutions of 1989 showed that armies are not everything. If ordinary Russians stay on Mr Yeltsin's side, then victory may still be his.

Mr Yeltsin is not eternal and should not be treated as such. But, for the moment, he is by far the best chance for Russian democracy - and his chances of staying in power may be greater than now seems. Mr Rutskoi and his chief ally, Ruslan Khasbulatov, could see a brief moment of glory.

The hardliners in Russia have again and again failed to understand the message of Bucharest, at Christmas 1989, when Ceausescu ended up dead at the hands of a firing squad after unleashing tanks against the protesters. Once change has begun, it cannot be stopped, even with force.

Even free elections will scarcely bring stability to Russia, especially with the enormous strains that still face the federation, irrespective of who retains power in Moscow.

Those confused elections are, however, an important step towards the future.

It is a first step which Mr Khasbulatov and Mr Rutskoi may be powerless to prevent, however many soldiers they persuade to their side in the short term.

Steve Crawshaw's 'Goodbye to the USSR' is published by Bloomsbury

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