All the President's Mien
Perhaps the signal instance in which Aron lets wishful thinking dim reality is over Chechnya. "One momentous precedent," he writes, "has already been established: the end of the war in Chechnya." And he adds: "Never before in Russian history had non-violent political competition and free electoral choice borne so directly and effectively on the Kremlin's major national security policy."
The end of the war in Chechnya? Two years after signing a peace treaty with his minuscule adversary, and months before the appearance of Aron's book, Yeltsin launched another invasion, under cover of mendacious assurances that it was just a "temporary action." The Russian generals wanted to avenge the humiliating fiasco of 1994-97. Chechnya obliged by becoming mired in chaos and murderous infighting. Several Chechen warlords launched raids into neighboring Dagestan (without the approval of Chechnya's president), and explosions devastated several apartment houses in Moscow and other cities, with shocking loss of life. There is no proof that Chechens were responsible for them, and it is altogether likely, as some observers have speculated, that they were caused or tacitly condoned by those who yearned for a showdown with the Chechen guerrillas. Whoever was responsible, the explosions exacerbated "antiblack" feelings in Russia (never far from the surface) and official language quickly branded Chechens "murderers," "terrorists" (shades of the old "enemies of the people") or, in line with the Russian predilection for "earthy language," "pure shit."
During the first Chechen war, Yeltsin had to contend with hostile Russian and foreign media. In the interim, however, the oligarchs seized control of the major media. (They had negotiated a notorious "loans for shares" agreement with the regime, receiving almost unlimited state financial aid and the right to manage their affairs with little government interference as payment for their unqualified political support for Yeltsin--a colossal piece of criminality glossed over in Aron's book.) Censorship of war coverage became severe, with Russian television purveying misleading stories and falsified data, and correspondents warned against objective, let alone sympathetic, coverage of the Chechen side. This gave Yeltsin--and subsequently, Vladimir Putin--a free hand to pursue a war that Russia's human rights defender, Sergei Kovalev, has labeled "genocidal." Under Yeltsin, too, the circulation of periodicals declined by 40 percent, and about three-fourths of all human rights organizations were denied the standing to initiate legal actions. In addition to the reimposition of censorship and restrictions on human rights groups, the war served to revive the myth of Russia's national greatness and military prowess, which Aron was so confident Yeltsin had banished.
Aron's weakness for partisan history (his own version of the "odnako syndrome") is perhaps most blatant in his discussion of Yeltsin's economic policies. He notes some of their deplorable features but in general pronounces the "reforms" a ringing success. In fact, much the opposite is true. The "shock therapy" urged upon Russia by a group of Harvard economists, above all Jeffrey Sachs, supported by the US government and energetically implemented by several young Russian economists, proved a disaster. The swift elimination of most price controls and subsequently a sweeping privatization program resulted in hyperinflation and wiped out, in several installments, all the savings of average Russians. About one-third of Russia's population thus found itself living below the poverty level, while a few have grown enormously rich, sending their profits to Swiss banks (an estimated $65 billion over the past few years) instead of plowing them back into their country's sagging industries. And that's not to mention the money laundered--estimated to be at least $7 billion--through the Bank of New York by some of the country's elite, now under investigation. The massive privatization program was fueled by huge sums of American money, which under the direction of Yeltsin protégé Anatoly Chubais were used to transfer the lion's share of the state-owned economy into the hands of a small number of business tycoons (the "oligarchs") who--as noted before--gained enormous political power.
Chubais & Co. have benefited greatly from this program. The oligarchs paid Chubais a $3 million fee in the form of an interest-free loan. Subsequently it turned out that two members of the Harvard Institute for International Development, which ran the privatization program, were "using [their] personal relations...for private gain," thus in fact compounding the corruption they helped bring about. Both were summarily dismissed from their jobs, and the HIID terminated its "missionary" activities in Russia. This January, Harvard officials announced that HIID will be dissolving in June, but denied that the move is related to a Justice Department investigation of possible insider trading. (For an excellent analysis of Russia's economic disasters and the role played by Western economists, see Janine Wedel, Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe.) [See also her Nation treatment of the subject,"The Harvard Boys Do Russia," June 1, 1998.]