WITH the boom of tank cannons and the rattle of machine-gun fire, Russia's political crisis reached its unfortunate climax yesterday.
From the outbreak of violence by armed supporters of the hard-line deputies of the Russian parliament on Sunday afternoon, it was clear that the government of President Boris Yeltsin had little choice but to respond with overwhelming force. If President Yeltsin had not acted decisively to crush the attempted armed uprising, it is very likely that his government would have met its own political demise, perhaps by the end of the day.
Yeltsin prevailed, thanks in large part to the loyalty of the Russian armed forces, which poured armor and troops into Moscow to crush the rebellion in the White House, Russia's parliament building. Hundreds of parliament supporters and troops filed out of the building in surrender after battle tanks shelled the White House and government commandos seized the lower floors of the building.
[Estimates of 500 killed in the battle for the White House could not be confirmed. Parliament chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov and Vice President Alexander Rutskoi surrendered to government forces, Yeltsin aide Dmitri Rurikov told CNN. He added that their personal safety would be guaranteed.]
Equally important for what follows, the president clearly enjoys the understanding, if not the support, of the vast majority of the Russian people and of regional leaders. Whatever doubts there have been, and still may be, about the rightness of Yeltsin's decision on Sept. 21 to dissolve the rebellious parliament, there seems to be little question that the government was compelled to respond with force. (Reporter's notebook, Page 2).
Western governments, led by the United States, were quick to back the Russian leader in the necessity to restore order with force. Outside of Russia, the leaders of other former Soviet republics also gave their approval. According to the official Itar-Tass news agency, the presidents of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Azerbaijan expressed their belief that ``the Russian president and government will do their utmost to stop provocateurs and defend democracy.''
Even among opponents of the president in Russia's regions, there is no evidence of support for the extremist actions of the antigovernment forces. And if the government can prove to the populace the truth of its account of events, there are indications that support will swing totally to the government's column.
``The regional soviet, its leadership, does not approve, does not support Yeltsin's actions,'' says Pavel Bolshakov, a spokesman for the regional soviet of Chelyabinsk, a stronghold of anti-Yeltsin feeling. ``Everyone is at a complete loss,'' he continued in a telephone interview yesterday. ``People don't know how trustworthy is the only TV channel that still goes on broadcasting. But if they are convinced that pro-parliament militants are actually acting on the orders of [Vice President Alexander] Rutskoi and [Parliament Chairman Ruslan] Khasbulatov, there hardly will be any support for the Supreme Soviet [parliament].''
Yeltsin, appearing on television early yesterday morning, assailed the actions of what he called a ``fascist-communist rebellion.'' He portrayed the government as unprepared for their well-organized violence, a claim for which there was evidence in the panicked retreat of police forces in the face of anti-Yeltsin demonstrators Sunday afternoon.
``This alarming and tragic night taught us many lessons,'' Yeltsin said in his television address. ``We did not get ready for war. We hoped that it would be possible to reach understanding and preserve peace in the capital.
``Those who acted against the peaceful city and unleashed bloody massacre are criminals.... Everything that has happened and is happening in Moscow is a pre-planned, armed mutiny. It is organized by Communist revenge-seekers, fascist chieftains, some former deputies and representatives of soviets [councils]. While holding sham negotiations, they accumulated forces, brought together bandit groups of mercenaries inured to killing and arbitrariness.''
On Sunday evening, the armed militants indeed seemed to be in control of not only the area around the Russian White House, the parliament building, but had spread out to other points in the capital. They briefly seized the official news agency and launched an armed assault on the headquarters of the state broadcasting system, succeeding in knocking all but one channel off the air.
As the battle waged around the television center, the city was virtually empty of government troops. Russians watching the sole television channel were given little information of the battle. There was a growing fear that the government had lost control of the situation and that what amounted to a coup akin to the Nazi's failed Munich ``beer-hall putsch'' of 1923 might succeed.
But by early yesterday, the tide was turning. Government forces held off the attack on the television center, as armored vehicles arrived to pour cannon fire on the attackers. In the morning, enough forces had arrived from infantry and armored units around and beyond the capital to mount the attack on the White House. By afternoon, the operation was complete, although sporadic gunfire forced onlookers to seek cover.
All this has been accomplished at a great cost in lives. The death toll will ultimately lie on Yeltsin's doorstep. Many Russians are certain to question his handling of this crisis from its first moments and to lay at least partial responsibility on the Russian leader for these tragic events.