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Welcome to the Soviet-style Knesset

Dmitry Shumsky
Dmitry Shumsky
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Boris Yeltsin, front left, stands with Vice-President of the Russian Federation, Ruslan Khasbulatov during Yeltsin?s inauguration ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow, Wednesday, July 10, 1991.
Boris Yeltsin, front left, stands with Vice-President of the Russian Federation, Ruslan Khasbulatov during Yeltsin's inauguration ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow, Wednesday, July 10, 1991. Credit: Boris Yurchenko / AP
Dmitry Shumsky
Dmitry Shumsky

From 1991 to 1993, an economics professor, Ruslan Khasbulatov, served as speaker of the Russian parliament. Actually, for the first couple of months of that stretch, he was speaker of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.

But even after the changeover, the Russian parliament was a holdover of the Soviet Union’s constitutional system, which did not recognize the principles of separation of powers. Parliament assumed political authority that was essentially unlimited, including numerous powers belonging to the executive branch.

Under Khasbulatov, parliament – the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation – became the focal point of all the reactionary political forces in the federation: the pro-Communists and nationalists alike, including anti-Semitic groups. These groups opposed the breakup of the Soviet Union, rejected the de-Sovietization processes that the country’s first elected president, Boris Yeltsin, sought to promote, and stuck spokes in the wheels of reforms and democratization.

The political confrontation between the essentially Bolshevik Russian parliament under Khasbulatov on one side, and Yeltsin and his supporters in the liberal democratic camp on the other, reached its peak in September and October 1993. In early October, in response to a September 21 presidential order directing the anachronistic and confrontational Supreme Soviet to disband so that a true parliament could be established in the spirit of the separation of powers, Khasbulatov and his people tried to depose Yeltsin.

First they occupied the government building in Moscow, also known as the Russian White House, and on October 3, a group of armed supporters of the Supreme Soviet took over Moscow City Hall and tried to seize the country’s main television station. In response, Yeltsin declared a state of emergency in the capital, and military forces loyal to him stormed the White House.

The clashes left more than 150 people dead, most of them unarmed civilians. The antidemocratic forces led by Khasbulatov may have lost the battle, but they won a decisive victory over the long term, as seen in Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime.

Boris Yeltsin, center, at the conclusion of the Russian parliament in Moscow, Friday, April 5, 1991. At fare left is Ruslan Khasbulatov.Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

There are numerous similarities between former Supreme Soviet Speaker Khasbulatov and Yuli Edelstein, the Knesset speaker who resigned Wednesday after the High Court of Justice ruled that he must allow a vote on his replacement.

In 1944, when Khasbulatov was 2, his family, which is from Chechnya, was deported from there to northern Kazakhstan; this was during the ethnic cleansing of the Caucasian peoples by Stalin. On the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Khasbulatov was a supporter of Yeltsin, and you got the impression that the democratization of Russia was to his liking.

But it quickly became clear that he remained a product of the Soviet-Bolshevik political system that had no interest in the principles of democracy, liberalism and the separation of powers. At the moment of truth for the young Russian democracy that couldn’t sustain itself, Khasbulatov grasped with both hands the outdated institution that was hostile to the fundamentals of liberal democracy – the Supreme Soviet – to the point that the country was at risk of civil war.

Edelstein’s biography doesn’t seem to raise any suspicion of a link to the Soviet antidemocratic ethos. On the contrary, he was a clear victim of the Soviet system, an aliyah refusenik and prisoner of Zion who was tried on false charges of drug possession. (The drugs were planted in his apartment.) Because of his Zionist activities, he was sentenced to three years in prison in a Soviet forced labor camp.

Moreover, as Knesset speaker, Edelstein sometimes acted like a statesman and proponent of democratic culture; for example, when he opposed Miri Regev’s proposal that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu address the Independence Day ceremony marking the country’s 70th anniversary, disrupting the tradition that the ceremony is exclusively sponsored by the Knesset.

And just two months ago, Edelstein permitted (though he really had no choice and was clearly displeased) the Knesset debate on Netanyahu’s immunity request. As a result, Edelstein was the target of severe mudslinging from the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street, which accused him of collaborating with the left.

Yuli Edelstein announcing his resignation as Knesset speaker, March 25, 2020.Credit: Adina Valman / Knesset

But the truth is – as often happens with immigrants from the former Soviet Union in Israel and elsewhere – Edelstein, a victim of the Soviet system, totally absorbed and internalized its antidemocratic foundations. For a week and a half he entrenched himself in the Knesset almost the way Khasbulatov entrenched himself in the Russian White House a generation ago.

By abusing his authority as Knesset speaker, Edelstein blocked the convening of the Knesset, delayed the setting up of parliamentary committees that would oversee the unelected caretaker government as it handles the coronavirus crisis, and refused to let the Knesset elect a new speaker to replace him, contrary to a ruling by the High Court of Justice. Part of the goal was to block an initiative by the Kahol Lavan and Yisrael Beiteinu parties to pass legislation that would prevent Netanyahu from forming the next government because of the corruption indictments against him.

Israeli observers looked on in amazement at the speaker’s parliamentary sabotage. Haaretz's Yossi Verter was right last week when he wrote that it was an unprecedented absurdity for Israeli politics: the Knesset speaker assisting the plot of the prime minister, who is also the head of his party, to paralyze the parliament for as long as possible.

Indeed, there’s plenty to be amazed by, and also something to fear. We’re talking about a historical accident that must be acknowledged: a man saturated with the antidemocratic political and cultural baggage of the former Soviet Union – baggage that is totally foreign to Israel’s democratic heritage. And he stood at the head of the holy of holies of Israel democracy and shamelessly did with it as he pleased.

One hopes that despite the heavy damage done by “Bibi-ism” and its slavish supporters, Israeli democratic culture will know how to fully uproot this foreign implant with all the democratic tools at its disposal.

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