Putin’s Artful Jurisprudence

At 8:00 P.M., Moscow time, on September 21, 1993, Russian president Boris Yeltsin read out an emergency decree on national television. Blaming Russian parliamentary leaders for ignoring the will of the Russian people, Yeltsin abolished the existing constitution and disbanded every legislative assembly in Russia. Russian parliamentary leaders immediately called an emergency session and removed Yeltsin for treason. They named his vice president, Alexander Rutskoi, acting president. The Russian Constitutional Court chairman, Valery Zorkin, then appeared before Parliament and reported that a majority of the court had found Yeltsin’s decree unconstitutional. Russia now had two presidents.

These two presidents eyed each other warily across a tense Moscow for more than a week. They issued competing laws and decrees to strengthen their respective positions. With the backing of the West and the Russian armed forces, Yeltsin quarantined the Russian Parliament in its building. The Parliament surrounded itself with armed supporters and called for a general strike. Fears of civil war spread as both sides sought to gain support and project political legitimacy. Amid this “war of laws,” legality broke down. Chairman Zorkin frantically sought to forge a compromise that would restore the political struggle to a legal plane.

Zorkin’s effort failed. After a series of armed street clashes, Yeltsin ordered the army to storm the Russian Parliament. A shocked Russian populace looked on as tanks took up positions across from Parliament. As tank shells slammed into the building, Rutskoi called Zorkin and asked him to alert the embassies. He went on: “They won’t let us out of here alive. Is the world community actually going to let them shoot the witnesses? There’ll have to be an investigation later, you know. They’re murderers! Do you understand me? You’re a believer, it will be on your head.”

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