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#15 - JRL 2007-99 - JRL Home
From: Andrei Tsygankov (andrei@sfsu.edu)
Subject: Boris Yeltsin as a Tragic Figure
Date: Fri, 27 Apr 2007

A typical Western account of Boris Yeltsin would presents him as the father of Russian democracy and market economy, who oversaw the country's imperfect transformation from centuries-old autocratic and imperial tradition to a modern nation. "It was Mr. Yeltsin, writes the Washington Post, who ensured that the process led, albeit temporarily, to democracy and liberal capitalism." Despite all his flaws, "Russia was never as free as in the Yeltsin 1990s, before or since," echoes the Wall Street Journal. Many Russians, however, view Yeltsin as a ruler who essentially squandered comparative advantages of the Soviet era by destroying industry, undermining territorial integrity and creating a class of super wealthy oligarchs that effectively monopolized control over the economy and political system. Intellectuals and politicians frequently refer to the Yeltsin era as an example of the Time of Troubles, or state disintegration caused by failure of leadership and external invasion. According to a recent independent poll, only 5% of the general public favored the Yeltsin era, whereas 34% chose the current situation and 47% the Soviet era. A lpoll last year revealed that to 70% of Russians, the 1990s brought more negative than positive developments, and the majority (49%) believed that Yeltsin should stand a trial for unlawful actions and abuse of power.

Yeltsin, of course, was not a villain who plotted to sell the country to special domestic or foreign interest groups. Nor was he a visionary liberator of Russia from its traditional institutions and political culture. Rather, as Mikhail Gorbachev said, Yeltsin "leaves behind him great deeds to the benefit of his country and serious mistakes.... [He was] a tragic figure." The tragedy of Russia was that the transition from autocratic rule produced a failing state, and not a workable new institutions and enduring freedoms. This is no news to Russia, and its modern political history from Alexander the Second to Nicholas the Second illustrates the described trajectory. The tragedy of Yeltsin was that he understood the danger, but was unable to address it. A man of intuition, rather than intellect, he sensed that his policies of breaking up the USSR, nomenclatura privatization and special deals with Russia's regions had the potential of putting the nation on a path of further disintegration. As a revolutionary, however, he was in no position to initiate processes of healing, reconciliation and reconstruction. Yelstin's tremendous psychological crisis and prolonged bouts of depression while in the office shed light on how he really felt about taking his nation to "democracy." Before leaving office he asked his fellow citizens for their forgiveness "for having failed to live up" to their hopes. He found the courage to admit his failure, resign before his term expired and pass power to a person who, he sensed, appreciated the importance of state recovery.

Yeltsin's tragedy is that of a revolutionary destroyer turned statesman. While working to undermine foundations of the Soviet state and remove Mikhail Gorbachev from power, he went too far and could no longer control the process. Unlike Gorbachev, who lost control over the country because of his own indecisiveness in reforming the system, Yeltsin was plenty decisive, yet misguidedly so. Instead of attempting to rebuild the union, he plotted behind Gorbachev's back to dissolve it and went on to promise to give Russia's republics as much sovereignty as they "could swallow." The political seeds of Chechnya's secessionism were planted here. By the time, Yeltsin had decided to intervene in Chechnya, it was already too late. What is tragic is not that he chose to intervene, as some liberal commentators have suggested, but rather that he did it late and without a thorough preparation - on whispering by war party that the intervention would be quick and successful. The special deals with republics that followed and "asymmetrical federalism" that resulted from them further indicated desperation by a statesman who was unable to assert his power and was trying to save an already sinking ship.

Yeltsin's economic policies too betray his ardent desire to destroy the Soviet system by going to the opposite extreme conservative shock therapy. The much required macroeconomic stabilization came at the price of a destroyed industry and middle class and increased dependence on foreign credits. Former Soviet nomenklatura and Western international organizations prepared the ground for the reform, and all advice from moderates was brushed aside as ironically too conservative. Radicalism of reform appealed to Yeltsin's revolutionary instincts, and he did not hesitate to promise that Russia would be brought to the front rank status of countries such as France, Germany, and the United States within a decade. Impatient, he also chose nomenklatura privatization as the fastest way to part with the Soviet structure of ownership. Both nomenclatura and foreign corporations profited handsomely from Yeltsin's economic policies. The former successfully converted power to property, quickly moving them to the rank of wealthiest individuals on earth. The latter signed multiple potentially lucrative deals with the government to develop oil and gas fields the so called Production Sharing Agreements according to which all profits were to go to them, and not to the Russian government.

Yeltsin attempted to discipline oligarchs by unleashing generals Korzhakov and Barsukov on them, but this could no longer be effective. Although Yeltsin deeply resented oligarchs, such as Boris Berezovski and Vladimir Gusinski, most of the media and the capital were in their hands, and attempts to intimidate them by raiding their offices could only have a short-term effect. Yelstin could not recreate what he had been so eagerly destroying workable state institutions. He targeted the Soviet system, but hit the Russian state. It is no wonder that he lost popular support and resources for restoring control. After passing the Constitution in a rigged vote, and the disastrous showing of pro-Yeltsin's forces during the December 1993 elections, all he could do was to generate an immasculated agreement of National Accord and to signal his support for moderate critics of his rule associated with the Civic Union and the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. Deeply confused, he was still moving back and forth adopting more statist steps associated with figures such as Yevgeni Primakov, yet worrying that the shift in policy would relegate Yeltsin to the shadows. In the meantime, the country kept falling apart, and the president felt compelled to summon back Berezovski, Gusinski and the like to support his reelection bid in 1996. The revived dependence on oligarchs could only exacerbate the problems of Russia's collapsing statehood. As the oligarchs-controlled TV continued to humiliate the army and its performance in Chechnya, the society's moral was deteriorating and the economy stagnating. Yeltsin's efforts to initiate the search of a "national idea" under the circumstances could generate not much more than tasteless jokes.

Those who say today that Yeltsin left a very contradictory legacy are correct, of course. Even though each of Yeltsin's accomplishment came at a heavy price and was a by-product of his struggle for power and personal survival, these accomplishments are undisputed. Among them are macroeconomic stabilization, the Constitution, continued elections and voluntary departure from power. Still, Yeltsin's main record remains that of a state destroyer, and that is how the Russian people are likely to remember him. He was an archetypical Russian ruler decisive, authoritarian, mistrustful and populist all at the same time. He could have made either a great revolutionary or a great leader of Russia. The tragedy of Russia and his personal tragedy was that he could not be both.