Boris Yeltsin, who died on April 23, was a towering figure in Russian political history. But was he, as so many US obituaries and editorials have described him, the “Father of Russian Democracy”?
As though a wave of historical amnesia had swept over the media, few commentators seemed to remember that it was Mikhail Gorbachev, upon becoming Soviet leader in 1985, who launched the democratic reforms of “perestroika” and “glasnost”–ending censorship, permitting, even encouraging, opposition rallies and demonstrations, beginning market reforms and holding the first free, multi-candidate elections. (Indeed, Yeltsin was the chief beneficiary of those reforms.)
Those reforms provided Yeltsin with an opportunity unique in Russian history. In June 1991–when he was elected President of Soviet Russia in what remains perhaps the freest and fairest Presidential election the country has ever had–and again in August 1991 when he stood, iconically, on a tank to face down an attempted coup by Communist hardliners, Yeltsin could have seized the chance to become the co-founder of Russian democracy.
But if Yeltsin was any kind of reformer, it was in the undemocratic tradition of Peter the Great, with whom he often compared himself, and he quickly squandered–even betrayed–that chance. After August 1991, Yeltsin’s anti-democratic policies polarized, embittered and impoverished his country laying the ground for what is now unfolding in Russia–though it is being blamed solely on today’s Russian President, Vladimir Putin.
What follows is a quick tour of nearly ten years of Yeltsin’s shock politics and policies:
** In December 1991, Yeltsin and a small band of associates suddenly, without any legal or practical preparation, or consultation with the Parliaments or peoples involved, abolished the Soviet Union. Even if the Soviet Union needed to be disbanded, Yeltsin did it–as even his supporters later acknowledged–in a way that was “neither legitimate nor democratic.” As Stephen Cohen wrote last year in The Nation, the breakup was ” a profound departure from Gorbachev’s commitment to social consensus and constitutionalism,” and represented a return to the country’s Tsarist and Bolshevik tradition of imposed change from above. It also bred mass resentments that jeopardized the democratic reforms achieved during the previous six years of perestroika.
** Beginning in early 1992, Yeltsin launched the disastrous “shock therapy” policies which sent the country reeling with pain. Urged upon Russia by a group of US (primarily Harvard) economists, and supported by the Clinton Administration and energetically implemented by Yeltsin’s young “reformers,” these policies–almost universally touted as “reforms” in the Western media– involved the swift elimination of most price controls and a privatization program that resulted in hyperinflation wiping out, in installments, the savings of average Russians. Roughly half of Russia’s people thus found themselves living below the poverty level.