Eltsin on Averting Civil War

Boris Eltsin, There Won’t Be a Civil War. March 23, 1991

This March 1991 interview in Ogonek gave the now fully-confident Eltsin the opportunity to express his political views, particularly concerning Russian sovereignty, to the citizens of his republic.

Original Source: Ogonek, No. 12, March 23, 1991.

I realize that a degree of caution should be exercised with respect to public opinion polls that rate the popularity of and confidence in a political figure and his leadership. At least there is no need to become excessively euphoric when you become, as I have, the hero of the “Man of the Month” department. First of all, public opinion is fickle, and in addition it’s impossible and just plain indecent to try to please everyone.

But what’s the point of trying to hide the fact that it’s obviously pleasant when your deeds and actions don’t go unnoticed? For me February was a difficult, stressful, and exhausting month, and when I heard that Professor Grushin’s sociological service called me the “man of February,” he made it possible for me to arrive at the comforting conclusion that I hadn’t survived the month in vain. In addition, I am happy to get the opportunity to address the readers of Ogonek. During the information blockade that the Russian parliament is now under, it’s particularly important for me to engage in a direct dialogue with the readers without any intermediaries, interpreters, Communist commentators, or other narrators.

Quite recently I spoke to very different audiences in Yaroslavl, Kaliningrad, and Novgorod provinces. And although I met with workers, intellectuals, peasants, military men, party employees, and managerial employees, people with diverse political views, sympathies, and passions, it will be a long time before I will be able to recall such unanimity on the most important point, that is, the understanding that the country has reached the very final stage of collapse and that there is no longer anywhere to fall back to.

The people who led one of the wealthiest and most talented countries on the planet to a state of destitution and degradation must always have a face of the “enemy” to fall back on, someone they can blame for everything that is going on. We have always had an “enemy” in the seventy-three years of Soviet power: at first we had the bourgeoisie, the gentry, and the capitalists; then we had the counterrevolutionaries, the Trotskyites, and the left- and right-wing deviationists, and also the kulaks; then came the CIA, imperialism, and the Zionist conspiracy. And now we need a new “enemy,” because no one believes in the CIA, the Trotskyites, or the capitalists anymore. The new “enemy” is the so-called democrats, who are destabilizing, tormenting, subverting, disorienting, and committing all other kinds of vile acts in their lust for power. On the basis of this logic, all we would have to do to make everything good in the country would be to remove the democrats and get rid of them somehow, and then there would ensue a glorious time known as the “Communist future,” “the socialist choice,” or the “radiant future.”

After I was elected chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Russia, I committed one very important tactical blunder. I trusted Gorbachev. It seemed to me that an alliance with Gorbachev might become very important in stabilizing the situation both in the republics and in the country as a whole. And many people urged me on. Our joint work on the 500-day program brought the interests of a renewed union of republics and the center even closer together. Gorbachev had admitted publicly that the Shatalin-Iavlinskii program looked very interesting and promising to him. It seemed to me that all we had to do was take one more step, and we could walk together onto the road which would lead us out of the crisis. But that didn’t happen. He suddenly changed his position drastically, and the 500-day program collapsed, burying any hopes with it for a way out of the impasse.

Instead of breaking with Gorbachev and firmly divorcing myself from the president’s policies of half steps, half measures, and half reforms, I fell prey to the illusion that we could still reach an agreement. But, as it turned out, it was impossible to make an agreement with a president who is simultaneously the general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist party and to whom the interests of the party caste and the party elite will always take precedence over any other interests.

And so we lost four months. We didn’t get anywhere by supporting Moscow indirectly by our silence.

On February 19, in a live broadcast on Central Television, I had enough courage to tell the viewers that I was dissociating myself from Gorbachev’s policies. It would have been impossible and immoral for me to continue to watch without a murmur while the current leadership dragged the country toward chaos and catastrophe by trying to preserve the rotten system.

Yes, for me February became a month of choice, a month when I had to make a hard but unambiguous and necessary choice. Before then I believed that the time was not yet right for the left-wing forces to form their own political organization and that, after I left the Communist party, I had rid myself forever of the need to join any kind of party. Now I realize that this was just another one of my illusions. Without a powerful, well-organized party of the left based on the democratic platform and other democratic movements, we will never be able to stand up to the Communist party. The Communists have rushed to the attack, and already we are beginning to hear “front-line” terminology from the highest tribunals in the land. The president is trying to scare us with a civil war. An appeal has been made to party members to “come out of the trenches.” Already it seems that the old stereotypes of class hatred and class struggle, which had supposedly been buried in the archives forever because they were no longer needed, have suddenly been pulled out into the light.

Everywhere we see them whipping up hysteria and manipulating the public. At this point creating an atmosphere of fear, uncertainty, and hysteria is the only way the bankrupt authorities have to stay at the top a little longer. And this means that now is the time for us to say clearly and succinctly that this is the year of decision. Either democracy will be strangled, or we will win and pull the country out of the terrible state that it’s in. If the democrats are defeated, the country won’t wake up in 1985, which was a relatively placid and calm year by comparison with now, but in much worse times.

But I personally believe in a different future. I believe, because the people are behind us, because hundreds of thousands of people are coming to rallies in support of democratic ideas in response to a call from the heart, not because they were told to march there in formation on orders from the commanders of military units.

At this time the miners are engaged in a desperate battle for democratic ideas. The fact that they had to resort to such a hard and difficult step for everyone as a strike says only one thing: that the people’s supply of patience has dried up. Now they will get pressure from all sides, a torrent of slanders and disinformation will rain down on the strikers, and the authorities will try to intimidate the leaders of the strike committees with trials and fines. It’s very important that the strikers should feel the support of all kinds of people standing behind them. And we must support them.

I have already said that “the democrats are to blame for it all” is a very convenient formula. In particular we “are to blame for the collapse of the Union.” I realize that the people who conjure up these kinds of incantations are themselves very well aware of who is really to blame for what. Who alienated seven republics to the point that they left the union, who considers the phrase “renewed union” to be nothing more than a smoke screen for cosmetic repairs of the same old command-bureaucratic system, and who is using the same old imperial thinking as the basis for relations between the republics and Moscow? The republics are just small children who can be slapped hard on the hands, like Lithuania, or given candy for good behavior (such as getting a hefty line of credit in hard currency). What’s important is that there is an uncle who knows all, decides everything for everyone, and whom everyone has to obey.

That’s what they call a renewed union. That’s what they call sovereign states and republics.

One more mistake I made and one more illusion I fell prey to was deciding, along with my allies, that when I won a majority of the delegates in the elections to the Russian Congress of People’s Deputies and when I became chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Republic, we had won. Now, we decided, we can pass good laws and appoint energetic and

talented executives and begin to build a normal human life for ourselves. But nothing of the kind happened. All of the power in the country and in the republic continued to remain in the hands of people who had successfully sold off and plundered the country and were not prepared to share power, namely the party bureaucratic center.

Thus, I, the leader of the parliament of a very important republic with millions and millions of people, vast territory, and tremendous potential, had no idea of what a president who had very little public confidence and a government which had absolutely none would do with Russia and everything else. I would lie down to sleep at night and have no idea where, in what circumstances, and how I would wake up the next morning. Would they confiscate my money and the money of my fellow citizens under the guise of changing denominations, would they put a freeze on bank deposits for the purpose of fighting inflation, would they seize the Russian television and radio company at night or simply take it off the air, would they put tanks and paratroopers on the streets, or what? All of this is decided at the Kremlin, at Old Square, at the KGB, at the Ministry of Defense, wherever you like, but not with any input from the Russian parliament. We could only watch in terror as the center made its next agonizing move. And all of this is known as “the sovereignty of a republic.”

I will refuse to sign the recently published version of the union treaty which the center prepared and which was supposedly approved by nine tenths of all the republics that took part in discussing it. Ruslan Khasbulatov, the leader of the working group, never signed the draft. And I hope that the Congress of People’s Deputies of Russia and the peoples of Russia will support me in this. We have dozens of major complaints concerning the text of the treaty, starting with the title of the document and ending with its basic principles; in particular, who the subjects of the federation are, how they propose to delineate republican and federal property, the division of administrative functions among the country and the republics, and so forth. All of these are very important problems that must be resolved before we can even think about any kind of treaty. And that also means any kind of union.

Although I already know what kind of scenario they are preparing in order to avoid the necessity of my signature on the union treaty. The “Communists of Russia” bloc has proposed the creation of a group of plenipotentiaries at an extraordinary congress for the purpose of signing the new union treaty in the name of Russia. By the way, they have lots of other preparations to make at this congress. They will try to engage us in a decisive battle and will try to change the leadership of the parliament’s republic. And right now, at Old Square, there are entire groups of people engaged in conjuring up and preparing compromising materials on unwanted leaders, developing different tactics for the congress, and screening candidates for leadership positions in the parliament and government of the republic. In general, they’re very, very busy.

In this situation our main argument in the struggle against the party bureaucratic structures is a direct appeal for popular support. People are not drawn to us because we democrats are a head taller, better built, or generally look nicer than the party apparatchiks. Perhaps it’s just the opposite. They’re drawn to us because of our ideas, which unite all of us and are attractive and simple: A man should have the right to work freely and dispose freely of the results of his work. And that’s it. You don’t need anything else.

The first secretaries of the party provincial committees, who are at the same time the chairmen of the provincial councils, are sabotaging most of the decisions made by the Russian parliament and the government. Each of them will have to decide between one post or the other by March 15. Russian law prohibits combining a council leadership position with a leadership position in any other public organization. This is very important for the whole republic. In places where the provincial councils are still, in essence, branch offices of the party provincial committees, no land is being allocated for private farming and any attempts to develop new forms of management are being blocked. But in places where bold and energetic people have taken power into their own hands, privatization has proceeded apace, hundreds and thousands of farmers with their own land have emerged, and life is becoming normal, full, and creative.

I am placing my hopes on the results of the Russian referendum. I have always believed and still believe that the president of the republic should be elected by a direct popular vote. I am confident that most of the voters in the referendum will support this civilized and democratic procedure for electing the leader of the republic. And then it will be necessary to take the next step: The leaders of all the councils should be elected by direct popular vote. Only then will we have strong executive and legislative powers. And in general the entire power structure would be reinforced and sustained by the direct expression of the popular will.

I am convinced that despite the tragedy of the situation now afflicting the country, we still have a chance of getting out of this rotting quagmire if they would just stop interfering with our work. In the near future our economists will submit a Russian version of the 500-day program for discussion. And one more very important matter: This month we will do everything we can to make sure that everyone who wants to can get land this spring and start to work on it. I have confidence in Russians, we all deserve a better fate, and it seems to me that the time has come for us to build our own lives with our own hands.

But I don’t believe in a civil war. No matter how agitated the atmosphere gets and no matter how hard the president and his advisers try to aggravate the situation, I am absolutely confident of the people’s common sense.

And what else is there left to believe in?

Source: Isaac Tarasulo, ed., Perils of Perestroika: Viewpoints from the Soviet Press, 1989-1991 (Wilmington: SR Books, 1992), pp. 313-319.

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