Russia's Potemkin Leader
Modern Russian history, as taught by Clinton Administration spin doctors and Op-Ed pundits, holds that Boris Yeltsin dismembered the Soviet Union and set Russia on a historic path to democracy and a market economy. The Russians were eager to follow their first "duly elected" leader. They idolized ;the West and they willingly surrendered their values and their dreams--at least the "new Russians" did, a term that apparently is confined to a segment of the newly rich Muscovites. Year after year we were told that Yeltsin's reforms were changing the face of his land--witness the number of Mercedes and the evidence of breathtaking conspicuous consumption. A few years ago, shortly after I checked in to one of the new luxury hotels in Moscow, I was told that each Friday I could avail myself of fresh lobster flown in from Canada that very day! Western experts advising Yeltsin's "young reformers" on how to proceed were optimistic. I was given a stern lecture by one of them, an economist from Sweden, for suggesting that conditions in the country appeared catastrophic in comparison to the days of Communist rule.
The Yelstin legend took hold; he was Clinton's icon for a new Russia. From the moment he stood on a tank in August 1991 to face down an attempted Communist coup, Yeltsin was championed by the West as Russia's great hope. He was an appealing figure, athletic, always neatly dressed. He publicly boasted of his friendships with Bill Clinton and other Western politicians. He was a man to do business with, the Kremlin leader whose government was no longer a threat, whose human failings were on display for all to see. Who could forget Clinton's uproarious laughter as he tried to defuse Yeltsin's drunken diatribes during their summit at the Roosevelt museum in Hyde Park? Or the inebriated Yeltsin snatching the baton from the conductor of the Berlin Police Band and proceeding to conduct himself? Little attention was given to Yeltsin's tanks pounding his "duly elected" Parliament or to his policy in Chechnya. The Clinton Administration publicly encouraged Yeltsin to disband the Parliament because a solid majority of deputies wanted to pursue reforms more slowly. Several months before he actually moved against the legislature, a senior US official told the New York Times that "if Yeltsin suspends an antidemocratic parliament, it is not necessarily an antidemocratic act." Later, while Russian planes, tanks and artillery rained death on the Chechen capital of Grozny, Clinton saw fit to compare Yeltsin to Abraham Lincoln. Even when Yeltsin's entire economic reform program came crashing down in 1998, Vice President Gore voiced the opinion that "optimism prevails universally among those who are familiar with what is going on in Russia."
In short, the Clinton Administration hitched its Russia policy to Yeltsin's fortunes. Yeltsin's critics in Russia were dismissed as "dark forces" seeking Communist restoration or worse. There is a simple explanation. Heavily dependent on Western loans and subsidies, Yeltsin was always prepared to render services to Washington, provided he was handled with great sensitivity and accorded even greater public respect. He proved accommodating in Bosnia and again in Kosovo.
But for most Russians, Yeltsin's rule was a social and economic disaster. They viewed him--not without good reason--as being completely dependent on Washington, where the US Treasury and the International Monetary Fund are located. These institutions were a primary influence on his behavior and the often violent and self-destructive course he followed.
When he suddenly resigned on New Year's Eve a year ago, Yeltsin left his successor an impoverished state with few features of democracy and many more of authoritarianism. It is too early to assess properly the true meaning and consequences of his rule. But figures indicate that it wreaked far greater damage on Russia's economy than the Nazi invasion and World War II. Russia's gross domestic product between 1991 and 1998 declined by 43 percent, compared with the Soviet GDP decline of 24 percent from 1941 to 1945.
Behind this figure lurks a dramatic decline in living standards. An estimated 40 percent of the population lives in poverty--a tenfold increase since the collapse of Communism. Yeltsin's policies have had a catastrophic effect on health, education and social programs. Rising infant mortality, declining life expectancy and spreading infectious diseases have produced a negative population growth that is obscured in part by the steady stream of ethnic Russians returning from the outlying parts of the former Soviet Union (by 1995, Russia's population had declined by some 2 million). Agriculture remains comatose--Russia today imports 55 percent of its food supply. Officially, unemployment is about 12 percent, but the real figure is estimated to be between 20 and 25 percent (there are about 11 million Russians of working age who are listed as "missing"). The average daily food intake today is 2,100 calories, less than the minimum recommended by the World Health Organization; in the 1980-85 period, the average intake was 3,400.
None of these troubling issues are to be found in Yeltsin's Midnight Diaries. Memoir writers of course want to present themselves in the best possible light, and Yeltsin is no exception. He portrays himself as the leader who set Russia on a new course, gave it political stability and secured a peaceful transfer of power. Under his leadership Russia has joined the exclusive club of the eight most advanced industrial nations in the world.
What seems most remarkable about this Panglossian version of one of the most turbulent decades in Russia's history is its tenuous relation to reality. The disastrous reform program and the failure to introduce the rule of law, to the extent that they are touched upon at all in this book, are presented with serene detachment--Yeltsin writes about such things as though they had nothing to do with him.