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From: "Archie Brown" <archie.brown@sant.ox.ac.uk>
Subject: On Yeltsin
Date: Thu, 26 Apr 2007
[DJ: A shortened version of this article appears in The Guardian, April 26, under the title
"The real Yeltsin legacy
"Far from introducing freedom and democracy, the late president helped discredit them in Russia"

No-one can ever take away from Boris Yeltsin the fact that he was the first Russian leader to be elected by the whole people. Equally, no-one should forget that he would have remained a little-known regional party boss had not Mikhail Gorbachev introduced a vast range of new freedoms and then competitive elections, making the Soviet political system different in kind.

Yeltsin had his merits and some major achievements. He had moral and physical courage in plenty and was decisive to a fault. He was not one of nature’s subordinates, as his would-be patron, Yegor Ligachev, the conservative second secretary of the Central Committee, found to his cost when he recommended Yeltsin’s promotion to Moscow in 1985 from his regional party secretaryship in Sverdlovsk. Ligachev thought that Yeltsin would show him subsequent loyalty, but Yeltsin, who possessed a natural authority, was ill-suited for the role of a client. He was soon a thorn in Ligachev’s flesh and, later, in Gorbachev’s.

With his willingness to challenge the leadership and fight elections, Yeltsin helped to give greater substance to the new pluralism in the last years of the Soviet Union. His finest hour, by common consent, was when he led the opposition to the August 1991 coup by those who had put Gorbachev under house arrest and who wished to turn the clock back to pre-perestroika times.

A vast amount of nonsense has, however, been talked in recent days about Boris Yeltsin introducing freedom and democracy to Russia. Yeltsin did neither of these things. A gradual liberalization of the Soviet system was initiated by Gorbachev from the time he succeeded Konstantin Chernenko as party leader in March 1985. This turned to serious democratization in 1988. Yeltsin was never part of Gorbachev’s inner circle where key decisions were taken. In particular, after his removal from candidate membership of the Politburo in early 1988, Yeltsin was sidelined until competitive elections were held for a new legislature in the spring of 1989.

It was, however, in the intervening period – the run-up to the Nineteenth Conference of the Communist Party in the summer of 1988 – that crucial decisions were taken by Gorbachev, along with his closest associates, to transform the Soviet political system fundamentally. In 1988-89 glasnost developed into a freedom of speech and publication unknown for seventy years, with even Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago published officially in 1989, as was Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. Even more important was the decision to move to contested elections which Gorbachev sprung on unsuspecting delegates to the 1988 Party Conference.

With the advent of those elections the following year, the Soviet Union in many respects ceased to be a Communist system. The hallowed principle of ‘democratic centralism’ was discarded as members of the Communist Party, adopting very different platforms, competed against one another for the votes of a newly-empowered electorate. Yeltsin, contesting Moscow in these elections, was still a member of the Communist Party Central Committee (albeit a marginalised one) and he was up against the favoured candidate of the local party bureaucracy, whom he impressively trounced.

The ‘leading role’ of the Communist Party was similarly undermined by the new toleration of civil society. The introduction of genuine elections meant that party office-holders were no longer guaranteed a seat in the legislature. Moreover, unlike the old rubber-stamp Supreme Soviet, that new legislature was a serious check on the power of the executive, something very rare in Russian history and far less evident today than in the years 1989-91.

As an oppositionist Yeltsin was effective, but he played a far smaller part in the democratization of the system than in the break-up of the Soviet Union. While the former was a facilitating condition for the latter, its initiator was Gorbachev. However, for Gorbachev the break-up of the Union into fifteen separate states was an unintended consequence of liberalization and democratization. Since the Union was the historic successor to the Russian Empire and was, in some ways, a greater Russia, it was odd for the leader of the Russian republic, which Yeltsin became with his election to the Chairmanship of the Russian Supreme Soviet in 1990 and to the Russian presidency in 1991, to support Russian ‘independence’ from the Union. This made sense in terms of Yeltsin’s desire to take Gorbachev’s place in the Kremlin, and to put an end to ‘dual power’, but the complete break-up of the Union did nothing to promote democratisation in many of the successor states. Even today it is regretted by a majority of Russians.

Yeltsin’s main merit as President of post-Soviet Russia was that he preserved many of the freedoms introduced by Gorbachev, including some that became attenuated after his departure from the Kremlin. His principal demerit was that he helped to discredit the very ideas of democratization and democracy which had evoked real enthusiasm in the last three years of the Soviet Union. This was partly a result of his personalistic style of rule and his lack of interest in democratic institution-building. He was disdainful of political parties, a crucial building-block of democracy, and refused to join one. He was scarcely less dismissive of successive legislatures, most literally in 1993 when he ordered the bombardment of the parliament building of which he had been a defender two years earlier. He had little understanding of the significance of the rule of law. When a law officer disagreed with him, his first inclination was to fire him. When the Minister for Justice was dismissed in 1999 he was told by Kremlin officials; ‘You have one problem: you always cite the law’.

Yeltsin came close to cancelling the 1996 presidential contest and only allowed it to go ahead when he was persuaded that, with all of television on his side and huge sums of money (vastly in excess of the legal limits) from the ‘oligarchs’ behind his campaign, he could win. He complacently overlooked vote-rigging in both Duma and presidential elections.

Although he launched a bloody and unnecessary war in Chechnya, Yeltsin generally allowed substantial leeway to regional governors and the presidents of Russia’s republics, such as Bashkortostan and Tatarstan. He genuinely believed that Russia was too large a country to be governed exclusively from the centre. The devolution of power, though, was at the expense of any concern about local freedoms and democracy. If a political leader could deliver votes for Yeltsin when he needed them, he could be as much of a local despot as he liked in between elections.

Support for democracy among the Russian population as a whole was still more undermined by the sell-off of Russia’s natural resources to pre-selected buyers at knock-down prices – the ‘appointment of billionaires’ – at a time when wages or pensions were often unpaid. The level of corruption was such that Yeltsin’s main concern, when picking a successor, was to find someone who would safeguard him and his family from any threat of prosecution. Having earned much of his popularity in the late Soviet period with attacks on privilege and inequality, Yeltsin presided over such a vast increase in both that he seriously damaged the cause of democracy to which, at his best, he had made a real contribution.

Archie Brown’s book, Seven Years that Changed the World: Perestroika in Perspective (Oxford University Press), is published this week.