Boris Yeltsin, who died April 23, was a towering figure in Russian history, but was he, as so many US obituaries and editorials have maintained, the "Father of Russian Democracy"? As though afflicted with historical amnesia, most American commentators seem to have forgotten that it was Mikhail Gorbachev who, upon becoming Soviet leader in 1985, launched the democratic reforms he called glasnost and perestroika–ending censorship; permitting, even encouraging, opposition rallies; holding the country's first free, multi-candidate elections, whose chief political beneficiary was Yeltsin himself; and beginning the marketization and privatization of the Soviet state economy. In short, by 1989 Gorbachev had ended the seventy-year Communist, or "totalitarian," dictatorship in Soviet Russia.
Gorbachev's 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 most free and fair 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 against Gorbachev by Communist hard-liners, Yeltsin could have 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, that imposer of Westernizing changes from above to whom Yeltsin often compared himself. As a result, he quickly squandered–even betrayed–that historic opportunity. After August 1991 Yeltsin's rule-by-decree polarized, embittered and impoverished his country, laying the groundwork for what is now unfolding in Russia–though it is being blamed solely on the current president, Vladimir Putin.
What follows is a quick tour of nearly ten years of Yeltsin's politics and policies. All of them were carried out in the name of "democracy," but they served only to discredit that form of government in Russia. And it should be remembered that they were enthusiastically supported by Washington and our mainstream media as "democratic and market reforms."
§ 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 it needed to be dissolved, Yeltsin did it, as even his supporters later acknowledged, in a way that was neither legitimate nor democratic. As Stephen F. 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 czarist and Bolshevik tradition of imposed change from above.
§ In early 1992 Yeltsin launched disastrous "shock therapy" economic measures. Promoted by a group of US (primarily Harvard) economists, supported by the Clinton Administration and cheered by the US media, the "therapy" was the abrupt elimination of most price controls, which, through hyperinflation, wiped out the savings of most Russians, plunging them into poverty.
§ In October 1993, locked in a bitter dispute with legislators over those economic policies, Yeltsin used tanks to destroy not only the Parliament, which had brought him to power and defended him during the attempted 1991 coup, but the entire constitutional order of Russia's post-Communist republic. The US government and media, with few exceptions, again acted as Yeltsin's cheerleaders as he smashed the country's first-ever popularly elected, fully independent legislature. Few of those US officials or commentators seemed to understand or care that the "democrat" Yeltsin was destroying Russia's best chance in history to create a legislative branch capable of offsetting the nation's centuries-long tradition of unchecked executive power. That attack on Parliament led to the Russian super-presidency and obedient Parliament of today.
§ In December 1994 Yeltsin launched, also by decree, a war against the tiny breakaway republic of Chechnya. By the time it ended in a temporary truce in 1996, the campaign had killed tens of thousands of civilians, made a mockery of constitutional federalism and earned the horrifying distinction of being the first civil war to take place in a nuclearized country.
§ In 1996 Yeltsin's re-election campaign–financed by a handful of men who had profited greatly from his "privatization" policies and aided by pro-Kremlin media and censorship–was marked by spectacular legal violations. No less enduring in its consequences was the next stage of privatization, the most aggressive giveaway on Yeltsin's watch: the notorious "loans for shares" agreement, which allowed a small group of men to take control of the country's most valuable assets in exchange for funding Yeltsin's campaign. Out of this came the rapacious oligarchy, leading one Russian journalist to remark recently that Yeltsin was not "the father of democracy" but "the father of the oligarchy."
§ In August 1998 Yeltsin's government, after pledging not to, devalued the ruble, defaulted on its debts and froze bank accounts. People's savings were once again expropriated, further discrediting democracy and wounding a fragile middle class.
Such events help explain why, for most Russians, Yeltsin's rule was an age of blight and despair, not reform. None of the enduring antidemocratic consequences of those events, however, have caused Yeltsin's legions of American media boosters to do any explicit rethinking. While many of the obituaries in newspapers that were Yeltsin's most uncritical supporters did give a somewhat balanced appraisal of his years in power, none of them acknowledged their own role in promoting the developments they now criticize. Not surprisingly, those obituaries place the blame elsewhere, insisting that Yeltsin's handpicked successor, Vladimir Putin, destroyed Yeltsin's legacy. In reality, the de-democratization of Russia we have witnessed since Yeltsin left office on New Year's Eve 1999 is his legacy.