Michèle Montas, widow of journalist Jean Dominique, wants justice in Haiti.
Is there a more contemptible poseur and windbag than Elie Wiesel? I suppose there may be. But not, surely, a poseur and windbag who receives (and takes as his due) such grotesque deference on moral questions.
Quite recently yet another of Jasper Becker's indispensable dispatches from China appeared in his newspaper, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. "Every year," Becker reported, "about 10,000 of China's five million coal miners meet gruesome deaths underground." He went on to explain that censorship limits news of industrial accidents, but that conditions have certainly gotten worse in the past two decades, during China's breakneck effort at economic growth.
You have to pause a bit to let the impact of this statistic set in, especially after realizing that it does not include deaths from other industrial accidents, including factory fires, explosions and collapsing buildings, only a fraction making it into the pages of the Morning Post. Chinese workingmen and -women are dying at a higher rate than their counterparts in Victorian England or turn-of-the-century America, and, until now, the world has been paying little attention. By contrast, when an explosion at a coal mine in Monongah, West Virginia, killed 361 coal miners in 1907, the single largest such accident in our history, the disaster attracted national coverage.
You won't see much of Jasper Becker's kind of reporting in the American mainstream press. Over the past decade or so, American journalists, along with their ideological elder brothers at The Economist, have focused on the booming Chinese coastal cities, glorifying young entrepreneurial yuppies with cell phones and marveling at the construction burst of shopping plazas, office towers and upscale housing.
Slightly more conscientious reporters may mention, in passing, sweatshops and pollution, but they imply that these are the unfortunate and temporary byproducts of "economic reform," a phrase normally presented without the quotation marks, suggesting a self-evident good instead of a controversial set of economic policies. This uncritical attitude, best described as "market fundamentalism," has taken over much of the US media. Even Paul Krugman, currently the economic columnist at the New York Times and someone smart enough to know better, wrote an article back in 1997 titled "In Praise of Cheap Labor."
Jasper Becker is different. He is British-born but fluent in Chinese, and he has spent the past ten years in China, most recently for the Morning Post, skeptically tramping into areas of the country and listening to people most other Western journalists disregard. His years of work (some of it is also available on the Internet, at www.scmp.com) provide two tremendous services. First, he introduces us to Chinese people we would never otherwise meet. Second, he raises profound doubts about a core belief of market fundamentalism: that Chinese suffering today will be justified by a developed nirvana in the future.
Becker is not inspired by any nostalgia for the now-departed Maoist era; his last book, Hungry Ghosts (1998), was a powerful account of how the Great Helmsman's arrogance and the undemocratic Chinese Communist system caused more than 30 million people to die in a man-made famine during the disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958-61).
In The Chinese, Becker continues to care about the impact of economic policy on the lives of ordinary people. His book's very structure proves his determination to look beyond the minority of the newly prosperous, the people the Western market fundamentalists and investors find most photogenic. He starts at the bottom, in a village in the Guangxi region with some of the poorest of the 1 billion peasants, and then slowly moves up through the increasingly stratified Chinese society. Local officials shadow and harass him on his visits to the rural poor, who he says "probably constitute the largest unenfranchised group in the world." He goes on: "Forbidden openly to organize themselves to defend their interests against either the central state or local despots, they form secret underground armies, cults and millenarian sects as they have done throughout history. The state seems involved in a continual battle to crush them, and from time to time faint reports of this repression...reach the outside world." He speculates, "Given the chance, peasants would quickly organize themselves into associations or even political parties but at present that seems a remote prospect."
Becker also writes about the several hundred million migrant workers, third-class citizens who flock into the cities for low-paid, dirty work and who have no permanent right to stay or to bring their families, a state of affairs that would be depressingly familiar to black southern Africans. He visits the collapsing old industrial cities of the northeast, with their millions of angry, sullen unemployed. Becker profiles Chinese intellectuals, demoralized by repression after the 1989 Tiananmen uprising and the consequent "depoliticization of so many aspects of life." He explains: "Censors searching for subversive messages have examined everything from slogans on T-shirts to poetry magazines. The propaganda machinery has returned to its traditions." His grim conclusion is that "intellectuals have tried but generally failed to find some independent space within the system."
Becker describes the Communist Party, with its 58 million members, as a privileged minority in a country that now has nearly 1.3 billion people, but he estimates that "the real size of the ruling elite, from county magistrates upwards, is thought to be no more than 4 million." Only toward the end of his quest does he reach what he calls "the apex of the pyramid, the tiny group of self-selecting rulers."
Becker is extraordinarily cautious and measured. He points out that many of the precise-sounding government statistics, including the glowing economic growth figures, are either exaggerated or "simply made up to suit the propaganda needs of the day." Still, his years of experience crisscrossing the giant country have earned him the right to make certain observations, some of which may surprise even experienced China watchers:
§ Inequality in China is widening dramatically. Becker reminds us that the average annual peasant income in China is still only $240, a figure that has actually fallen in the past few years. The growing gap is distorting the Chinese economy; Becker points out that "much of the considerable investment in new housing was aimed at the very top end of the market despite a pressing need for low-cost housing."
§ Health and education for most Chinese are deteriorating. This discovery is perhaps Becker's most alarming. The decline is a disheartening contrast with the Maoist era, which despite its crimes and excesses brought significant progress. Becker even speculates that the Falun Gong religious cult, which continues to suffer vicious state repression, attracts adherents partly because "its leader, Li Hongzhi, promised his followers that if they adopted his system of exercise they need never take medicines or go to [the] hospital for treatment."
§ China today is governed by a kind of lawless authoritarianism. Local party bureaucrats, most apparently drained of any revolutionary idealism, wield unchecked power, arbitrarily imposing hundreds of different kinds of taxes on the rural poor. Quite logically, corruption flourishes.
At the upper levels, "princelings," the offspring of high party officials, commandeer what was once state property for personal gain and, in league with foreign (often overseas Chinese) investors, dominate vast segments of the economy, accompanied by corruption on a grand scale. Becker reports one particularly ominous development; some of the elite--you cannot call them "new" because many are the actual biological heirs of the old rulers--seem to be stashing billions outside China, a variant of Latin American- or African-style rapacity.
Such capital flight is a dangerous break with the East Asian pattern. In places like South Korea and Taiwan, the new industrialists did prosper, but they were required to keep the gains inside their countries, to reinvest in productive growth. Also, in neither place did the expanding economy widen inequality.
§ China's success at exporting from its coastal enclaves may be exaggerated. The inhuman conditions in these sweatshops are slowly becoming known, thanks to courageous Chinese activists and to solidarity movements overseas, but it may still be a surprise to learn that for the mostly female workers "talking is usually forbidden. To go to the toilet or drink a glass of water requires a permission card. Sexual harassment is common and punishments can involve beating, confinement or cancellation of wages."
Becker once again provides a fresh look, by raising serious doubts about the purely economic benefit of all this repression. He points out that the export zones are subsidized by the rest of the economy and that some of the apparent growth is in fact a speculative bubble (the kind of feverish phenomenon that Internet investors in the West have just painfully learned about).
§ China's security apparatus is actually expanding. Becker's revelation comes as something of a surprise, because the surface of Chinese life looks more relaxed after the monochrome, bleak thought control of the Mao Zedong period. But as Columbia University scholar Andrew Nathan explains in his valuable introduction to the recently published Tiananmen Papers, "To be sure, [the regime] has diminished the range of social activities it purports to control in comparison to the totalitarian ambitions of its Maoist years. It...no longer aspires to change human nature. It has learned that many arenas of freedom are unthreatening to the monopoly of political power."
So even though people in Beijing and Shanghai now wear Western-style jeans and running shoes, Becker points out that repression continues; arrests--not just political--are arbitrary, torture is routine and the death penalty is applied more frequently. Bill Clinton's 1998 state visit and China's accession to the World Trade Organization were supposed to be liberalizing influences. The market fundamentalists who insist that increased trade somehow automatically improves human rights have some explaining to do.
§ China is--for now--not a strong military threat to Taiwan, despite Beijing's bellicose threats. Contrary to the alarms of Western conservatives, Becker contends that the Chinese Navy could not--yet--mount an invasion across the Taiwan Strait, adding that "Chinese pilots cannot even fly in bad weather because their radar screens are unreliable."
§ Environmental degradation is perhaps the worst threat to China. The water table in the north is dropping; The Chinese includes a photograph of a forlorn figure trying to pump from a shallow pool in what is left of the Yellow River. China's water and air are polluted, and deforestation and loss of topsoil continue. Much of this is no surprise, thanks in large measure to the pioneering work of the scientist Vaclav Smil. Becker stresses that the environmental catastrophe is linked to China's lack of genuine democracy: "Since almost everything the state says is untrue, and most information is kept secret, there is no real trust or co-operation between its officials and the rest of the population."
Becker points out humorously that even Chinese weathermen have lied: "In 1999 it emerged that meteorologists had for fifty years been under orders never to report that the temperature had risen above 37 degrees centigrade (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), although why no one would explain. Perhaps such an admission was seen as discrediting the Party."
China's environmental failure illustrates one of Becker's most important conclusions: Human rights, democracy and government accountability are not luxuries, worthy ideals to be set aside until economic growth is achieved. In fact, genuine, broad-based, environmentally friendly growth will not happen until there is respect for human rights. Spasmodic government exhortations will not reduce corruption at either high or local levels, but a vigorous free press, freedom to speak out and genuine multiparty elections are the only hope. Continuing government lying will not heal the environment, but independent ecology movements can help, as they have already demonstrated in neighboring Taiwan.
Becker is cautious about the prospects for change. He does recognize that "some foreign and domestic observers have predicted that such an explosive mixture of corruption, poverty and unemployment in China must one day result in a rural revolt. Perhaps." But he also points out that the Chinese bureaucratic state can trace its ancestry continuously back to the first Emperor in the third century BC, making it "probably the oldest functioning organization in the world," one that has been "exercising a tighter grip over its subjects than any other comparable government in the last two millennia."
The market fundamentalists of course assume that change will come as the automatic consequence of economic growth. They have done little to help this evolutionary process along. The great Chinese democratic dissident Wei Jingsheng, released in 1997 after eighteen years in Chinese prison camps, sits in exile in the United States, just about ignored by the mainstream media. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a household word at a similar stage in his career.
Market fundamentalists disregard China's terrible level of industrial accidents and the decline in health and education. They are uncomfortable about Chinese sweatshops, air and water pollution, and corruption, but they justify these ills as an inevitable part of growth, looking back with a kind of misty glow at Dickens's England and post-Civil War America for reassurance that "we" came through the hard times, and so will the Chinese. Jasper Becker's remarkable book ought to raise crushing doubts.
But let us just imagine for a moment that the market fundamentalists are right. Their point of view is still immoral. They are implicitly suggesting that some people, those who gain from the unjust international economic order, have the right to impose suffering on other people, in the name of some ultimate goal. No one asked those 10,000 Chinese coal miners who died last year, men and certainly at least some women, whether they wanted to sacrifice for a greater future. No one allowed them to vote for people who might have protected their rights; no one permitted them to form independent labor unions. Apparently, globalization does not yet mean that members of America's United Mine Workers and other overseas unions can openly visit their Chinese colleagues and share their experience in fighting for safer workplaces. But at least, thanks to Jasper Becker, we are becoming aware that the Chinese miners exist, so they are no longer dying in total silence.
Among Palestinians in the occupied territories, the prospect that Ariel Sharon will be Israel's next prime minister is met with a shrug of the shoulders. The indifference is not from ignorance. Palestinians know well Sharon's history. They have always been the victims of it.
Leading the Israeli army's "southern command," Sharon ruthlessly crushed the Palestinian resistance in what was then the newly occupied Gaza Strip in the early 1970s. And of course it was Sharon, as Israel's defense minister, who was held "indirectly responsible" (by an independent Israeli Commission of Inquiry) for the massacre of about 2,000 Palestinians at Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The commission recommended that Sharon "draw the appropriate personal conclusions" and resign from his post as defense minister.
Rather, the Palestinians' apathy is explained by the comparison they make between Sharon and Israel's present prime minister. "By his actions, Ehud Barak has erased any difference between the two men in the Palestinian perception," says Palestinian political leader Mustafa Barghouthi. Four months after Sharon--with Barak's approval--decided to "demonstrate Jewish sovereignty" over the Islamic holy sites in occupied East Jerusalem by making a provocative visit to the Haram al-Sharif, Palestinian losses from Israel's suppression of the "intifada al-Aksa" are beginning to reach Sabra and Shatila proportions.
According to Barghouthi's Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, Palestinian casualties from the Israeli army and settlers now stand at nearly 360 killed and more than 13,000 injured. In addition, according to a UN economist, a military blockade isolating each Palestinian town and village from the other in the occupied territories has caused a 13 percent decline in the Palestinians' GDP and a 50 percent increase in their unemployment and poverty levels.
"The vast majority of Palestinians don't see Sharon or Barak. They see an army, with Sharon and Barak as its generals," says Barghouthi. Some Palestinians see more. They believe a Sharon victory will be a boon for their cause. "He will expose the true face of Israel," says Hussam Khader, an activist in Yasir Arafat's Fatah movement in Nablus, "and force the world, including the US, to address its real responsibilities to the peace process."
This is not a vision shared by the Palestinian negotiators. Perhaps they are aware that the "world" is never so negligent of its "responsibilities" as when Israel is the culprit, but surely they are concerned that the fall of Barak and rise of Sharon may spell the end not only of what is left of the negotiating process but also their own privileged leadership position within it. This may be why Arafat is warning that Sharon would be a "disaster" for the peace process and would increase the risk of regional war.
For most Palestinians--and a few Israelis--the recent "intensive talks" between the two sides at the Egyptian resort of Taba were thus seen not as a genuine attempt to seal an agreement, but as a charade to woo back to Barak's fold two Israeli constituencies threatening to abandon him on election day, February 6. These include some elements of the Jewish left, appalled by his excessive response to the Palestinian uprising, and the million or so Palestinian citizens of Israel who remember that it was Barak (and not Sharon) who gave the order that the police shoot dead thirteen of their kin during October protests in Galilee.
The difference in the appraisal of a Sharon victory is not the only rift between the leaders and the led in Palestinian society. Another is over whether to participate at all in negotiations when Israel is still using lethal force to put down the uprising and the West Bank and Gaza are still under siege. For the various Palestinian factions--including Fatah--the subtext of the Taba negotiations was less "peace" than a joint effort by Israel and the Palestinian Authority to, if not end the intifada, then at least keep it at an acceptable level of violence.
The suspicion was acute because all were aware that Taba was conceived at a meeting in Cairo in early January between Israeli and PA security chiefs, brokered by the CIA. Since then--aided by the quiet resumption of cooperation between the two security forces--there has been a steep decline in the popular demonstrations that marked the initial phase of the uprising and a less pronounced fall in the number of armed Palestinian attacks on soldiers and settlers that characterized the next. The danger is that as the national struggle has ebbed, a wilder, more indiscriminate violence has taken its place.
In the last two weeks of January, four Israeli civilians--as opposed to soldiers and settlers--were killed in the occupied territories, apparently for no other reason than being Israeli in the wrong place at the wrong time. There has been a revival of Palestinian "collaborator" killings similar to those that so blighted the last years of the first intifada. And, most ominous, there has been the return to Palestinian political assassination as distinct from the Israeli army's "precise" (and extrajudicial) execution of Palestinian political and military leaders.
On January 17 the head of the Palestinian Authority's Broadcasting Corporation, Hishem Mekki, was shot by masked gunmen in a Gaza hotel. He was killed for "practicing sex and stealing money," ran a statement from the Brigades of Al-Aksa, a vigilante group made up of disaffected members of Fatah and the PA's intelligence forces. The hit was popular among local Palestinians, who loathed Mekki--and others of his ilk--for his corruption, arrogance and womanizing. But wiser Palestinian heads see in his murder a sign that the struggle for liberation from Israeli rule is being replaced by a struggle for power within the regime.
Given such a scenario, the Palestinians could hardly be in worse shape to confront the "Sharon era." And eighteen years after he was forced to resign from office because of Sabra and Shatila--and 16 to 20 points ahead in the polls--Sharon could hardly be in better shape. Especially as there is no evidence at all to suggest he has changed his ways.
In an interview in early January with a Russian-language radio station in Israel, Sharon reminisced about the methods he had used in Gaza in the 1970s. He plowed vast "security roads" through the refugee camps, shot dead any Palestinian suspected of nationalist activity and conquered the Strip locale by locale. "I succeeded in bringing quiet to Gaza for ten years," he recalled. Would he use the same methods today? "Today the situation is different," he said, but "the principles are the same principles."
He had a busy finale, didn't he, primarily saving his own hide and issuing pardons: eeny meeny miny mo, Marc Rich yes, Leonard Peltier no. In Rolling Stone he called for an end to the disparity in sentencing for powder and crack cocaine that he adamantly refused to fix a few years earlier. What else? Let's see, he gave Teddy Roosevelt the Medal of Honor and boasted in the accompanying speech on January 16 that in 1993 he'd broken with the usual policy of incoming Democratic Presidents, who would pull the portrait of TR off the wall above the mantelpiece in the White House's Roosevelt Room and put up FDR instead. Then the incoming Republican Commander in Chief would reverse the process. Not our Bill. He kept TR up on the wall, triangulating right from the start. On January 16 Bill said it was high time to give TR the medal for which he had been recommended right after the charge up San Juan Hill.
Exit Bill, enter the new team, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, who now has a chance to live up to those fine words of his to the Republicans massed in Philadelphia for their convention last August. Powell told the plump delegates they should not forget the poor and the afflicted.
How might Powell distinguish himself from his predecessor Madeleine Albright? The latter's final act in office was, with the approval of Clinton, to insist that a slab of US military aid to Colombia should not be held up out of any pettifogging concerns for human rights. The Colombian military and its death squads have a documented record for bestial carnage unrivaled in the entire world, and so, in admiration for this pre-eminence, last August Clinton waived four of the five human rights criteria laid out by Congress to release the first chunk of $781.5 million. A certification or waiver was also required for the second installment, of $56.4 million. While conceding that the record of the Colombian military was not all that it could be, the Clinton Administration nonetheless decided that because the second slice of aid was not included in "regular funds" but rather in an emergency spending bill, the certification and waiver process did not apply.
On January 17, the day after Bill honored the imperialist hero of the Spanish-American War, and when Albright and the others were still chortling at their ingenuity in circumventing the human rights provisions, the BBC's correspondent in Bogotá, Jeremy McDermott, reported that "alleged right-wing paramilitaries" had attacked a village on Colombia's northwest coast, killing twenty-five people. "Fifty men in military uniform arrived in Chengue in the early hours of the morning," McDermott told his audience. "They rounded up 25 men whom they accused of being guerrilla sympathizers and hacked them to death with machetes. They then set fire to thirty houses of this village in the northern province of Sucre." McDermott added that the massacre had all the hallmarks of the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a right-wing paramilitary army of 8,000 fighters "deeply involved in the drug trade."
For months the inhabitants of Chengue had a pretty good idea of what might lie in store for them. On October 6 they wrote a letter to Colombian President Andrés Pastrana, detailing the threat of violence and human rights abuses that the people of the Municipal de Ovejas feel could occur at any moment on the part of paramilitary groups operating in the region. The terrified townsfolk urged Pastrana to do something "to avoid a massacre," explaining that the government's presence was minimal in the area and that the people live in "anguish and tension" because of the documented barbarism. Attached to the letter were the signatures of ninety-nine residents of the town.
While the villagers were appealing to Pastrana to save their lives, the Clinton Administration was putting spurs to "Plan Colombia," a strategy straight off the Pentagon's Vietnam and Central American drawing board. Beefed up by US training, "advisers," arms and intelligence, the Colombian military has been planning to overwhelm guerrilla bases in southern Colombia, simultaneously eradicating the coca and poppy fields, which are the peasants' only resource, the option of legal crops long since sabotaged by US economic policies. Pretenses that the Clinton Administration is strongly supportive of a peaceful solution to Colombia's troubles has become increasingly ludicrous, as dollars and kindred practical support for the Colombian military and its death squads have flooded from Washington to Bogotá.
As a man who helped cover up the My Lai massacre, Powell knows all about such campaigns of pacification. And since he's not dumb, he knows that Plan Colombia will merely augment that country's misery, which has more than half the population below poverty level, internal refugees by the million and no prospects for improvement. He knows too that "drug interdiction," partly the official US rationale for Plan Colombia, is a farce. He knows where the $1.3 billion should have gone: into the drug education and rehab programs here in the United States. The Clinton Administration and its Republican allies successfully beat back an effort by Senator Paul Wellstone to get about $225,000 of the package reserved to that end.
What's the chance of Powell pressing for a different approach in Colombia? Zero, I'd say. But at least once we should remind him of his rhetoric in Philadelphia, just as we should remind Bush at least once of his eloquent inaugural speech about helping the poor. Why collude with these folks in their degradation of language and morals?
And Bill? He's in Chappaqua glad-handing the locals and contemplating the memoirs that will doubtless be as mendacious as those of Teddy Roosevelt, like Clinton a Force Ten blowhard and self-inflater. In a couple of weeks Bill will be ogling the girls in the bank and suggesting sorties to the local hot-mattress motel, if such sanctuary is available in the purlieus of the Saw Mill River Parkway. If she's called Gennifer we'll have come back to the beginning, just as, on the larger canvas, we do year after year with San Juan Hill.
Like much of the Western involvement in the former Yugoslavia, the intense and often heated debate in NATO over the possible ill effects of depleted-uranium ammunition largely ignores the people on whom NATO used these weapons. The debate is focused on higher incidence of cancer and leukemia reported by Western troops who served six-month tours of duty in the Balkans. Six Italians, five Belgians, two Dutch, a Portuguese and a Czech have died, while four French soldiers are reported to have developed leukemia.
The former UN administrator for Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, a doctor and former French health minister, has dismissed the fuss as "a wave of irrationality." But Dr. Zoran Stankovic, a leading Belgrade pathologist who has investigated areas where DU contamination is thought to be most severe (Bosnia, Kosovo and southern Serbia), reports that unexpectedly high cancer rates are appearing in the local population. His main study focused on about 4,000 people who had lived in the Sarajevo suburb of Hadzici, which was heavily exposed to DU shells during the NATO bombing of 1995. "That group developed a large number of malignant diseases," he says. "Four hundred of them have died so far. Our initial suspicion was that there was a link to the effect of depleted uranium."
Stankovic does not claim to have established a link between the malignant illnesses and the use of DU ammunition. But his research adds weight to demands for an international investigation into health risks associated with DU. In Sarajevo, the Bosnian government has formed a working group to investigate what the Europeans call the "Balkan War Syndrome." It has also asked NATO to provide detailed information about the use of DU ammunition.
More than 10,000 rounds were fired in Bosnia and 31,000 in Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro. Uranium is one of the heaviest metals, which makes it effective in destroying tanks and similar targets.
Bosnia is an example of what is not working.
Files leaked from China show that country's leadership to have conspired against their own people during the Tiananmen protests—but are the documents genuine?
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.
On the other hand, Yeltsin wants us to believe that he had everything to do with his memoir, that he wrote it himself "in fragments over the years...late at night or early in the morning." It is widely known that it was ghostwritten by Valentin Yumashev, a former journalist and Yeltsin's longtime personal aide, with daughter Tatyana being the final censor. Only in passing--in Chapter 13--does Yeltsin mention that Yumashev worked with him on the manuscript. Other bits of contrived candor are sprinkled sparsely around with the apparent aim of defusing--with a sentence or two--some of his well-publicized shortcomings, even his drinking problem. Yeltsin says alcohol was his "only means [of getting] rid of stress"--until his 1995 heart attack. His consumption was afterward reduced to a single glass of wine per day.
Herculean efforts are made by the authors of this slapdash tome, which is filled with homilies about duty and patriotism, to suggest that Yeltsin possessed mysterious and therefore miraculously effective leadership skills. He liked the "simple, effective" style of leadership and made his decisions with "surgical precision." His stationery was embossed in gold with the presidential seal. His desk was cluttered with "coded telegrams" and "presidential mail." He used his "presidential pen" to sign decrees. By pushing buttons on a presidential "control panel" he could reach his far-flung minions. Metaphors reinforce the image of a supercool superexecutive who is always in control. Sometimes he is the sea captain, steering the Russian ship of state past dangerous reefs and shoals. On another occasion, before making a major announcement, he is like the space expert about to fire a rocket. ("Now it was too late for doubts. The countdown had begun. The bomb was ticking.")
The oddest thing about the details is that they offer the illusion of concreteness to obscure enormous ambiguities. We don't see Yeltsin making decisions on any substantive domestic issues. There is no evidence of his even being aware of the scope of devastation visited upon the people by his social policy. (Statistics give us an inkling: His government used only 9 percent of GNP on social services, compared with around 33 percent in the West.)
Yeltsin is certainly not stupid, but when you consider his remarkable energy in fighting for the presidency he seems unaccountably passive in other respects. We don't see him really concerned with the substance of his job. It is difficult to find an economic or social initiative Yeltsin conceived and brought to completion. ("There won't be any inflation," Yeltsin tells the press shortly before prices explode following the collapse of the ruble.) In fact, he reversed the democratization trend initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev. Yeltsin resorted to force to overhaul the entire constitutional order and to create a presidency that suited his needs. According to his own account, his crowning political achievement was Vladimir Putin's election as Russia's president in March 2000 (much of the first and last portions of the book are devoted to this).
There was something Reaganesque about Yeltsin, for his leadership seemed to exist only in his public utterances. But Reagan looks like a giant by comparison, since he held on to a few simple but firm beliefs and surrounded himself with capable aides. Yeltsin seems to be missing a central core belief--"the vision thing." He believed, he said in his final speech (in which he asked forgiveness of the people), that he was moving the country from its totalitarian past "to a bright, prosperous, civilized future." But wasn't that exactly the belief he was supposed to cherish when he served as the Communist Party boss of Sverdlovsk?
There is nothing in this book that appears to qualify Yeltsin for the presidency, with the exception of his prodigious lust for power and a genius for behind-the-scenes, byzantine politics, in which various elites struggle over the reallocation of power and wealth. Yeltsin was not a marionette. Far from it--he made his way up the greasy pole of power and fought constantly to stay at the top. He may have been extraordinarily passive on economic and social matters, but he was a superb bureaucratic infighter--bold, decisive and ruthless. He had no qualms about sacrificing even his most loyal supporters. "It was too bad, really just too bad," he notes after dismissing one of his prime ministers. When he fired his longest-serving prime minister--"faithful, decent, honest, intelligent" Viktor Chernomyrdin--he did it without forewarning because decision-making requires a special approach. "A decision should not wait. With any leakage of information, the decision ceases to be a bold, unexpected move and turns into the opposite." But even though he says firing people caused him "the severest kind of stress," Yeltsin concedes that he "felt an unusual rise in spirits, an enormous wave of optimism." He insists that his perpetual personnel changes were part of a careful and deliberate search for a politician to replace him and continue "on the path of democracy."
On the basis of the evidence, in the light of his years as president, we see Yeltsin as confident, surefooted and deeply interested in only one issue: the preservation of his personal power. He is a genius at perpetual conniving. Unlike Reagan, Yeltsin feared competent officials with established reputations. He entrusted great power to younger, inexperienced people without a political base of their own, then dismissed them when things went wrong. The failures were attributed to his revolving-door prime ministers as though they bore exclusive responsibility.
But why put oneself at the mercy of incompetent advisers? Yeltsin reveals his priorities in explaining his reasons for appointing Sergei Kiriyenko, 35, an obscure and inexperienced official, as prime minister: "Everybody needed a new figure, not someone who would lobby for the interests of some against others, not someone from some sort of camp, not someone who had already appeared in Moscow's echelons of power." In short, someone without a history or a political base. During his most severe crisis, in 1998, Yeltsin turned to his foreign minister and perhaps the most experienced man in the government, Yevgeny Primakov. But when Primakov suddenly gained widespread popularity in early 1999, Yeltsin became alarmed. He realized, he writes, that Primakov "was becoming a serious political alternative to my course and my plan for the country's development." Ignoring Primakov's "honesty, decency, and loyalty," Yeltsin swiftly defused the threat by dismissing the prime minister for alleged pro-Communist sympathies. "Primakov had too much red in his political palette," Yeltsin writes.
His final choice was Vladimir Putin, a former KGB lieutenant colonel, who was named prime minister in the summer of 1999. Putin's first move on becoming acting president was to sign a decree protecting Yeltsin from future criminal prosecution.
In this context, Yeltsin's rambling memoir is inherently interesting for what it tells us about his character and maneuverings. Its author-statesman casts the ongoing Russian drama in terms of Kremlin intrigues, ceremonial functions, gossip, meetings and talks with foreign potentates, and perpetual personnel changes. All along it is Yeltsin who holds every string in his hands and who, like a puppetmaster, keeps moving the cardboard characters he has created, apparently for that very purpose. The sagging economy, rampant corruption, rising crime, growing social inequities and one of the greatest lootings of assets ever recorded in history seem to be matters of minor concern. "How can you force a bureaucrat not to take bribes to feed his family, when he earns only 5000-6000 rubles per month but is involved in monitoring multi-million-ruble transactions?" Yeltsin writes. "Naturally, the only way is to raise his salary."
The picture that emerges is one of a petulant, self-centered, cunning man whose lust for power and fragile ego were the dominant forces of his presidency. Even though he was the picture of a model Bolshevik throughout much of his life, even though he had toadied up to Brezhnev, Chernenko and other political leaders to crawl up the party ranks, Yeltsin had always been a man waiting for the main chance. He turned against his colleagues when they blocked his path to the top in 1987. He fought hard. He finally seized his chance. The image of the man atop a tank was the apex of his career, the grand gesture for which he will be remembered in history.
Paradoxically, despite his anti-Communist diatribes, Yeltsin remained a Bolshevik at heart insofar as he believed that strong-willed and determined individuals could change the world by forcibly engineering social and economic changes. He saw himself as just such a man. He sought to obliterate the past, revise his own history and cultivate his own myth. I recall a St. Petersburg historian contemptuously quoting from an early New Year's Eve address to the nation in which Yeltsin referred to Communists as "they"--"They have imposed Communism on us for seventy years." And who was talking, the historian asked rhetorically? A former Politburo member and Communist boss of Sverdlovsk.
What is there of substance, if anything, in this man who strove mightily for grand gestures and theatrical effects? Midnight Diaries provides no answers, so there remains the question of whether Yeltsin ever seriously considered championing a democratic revolution.
What happened in 1991 is that the students and workers who made the revolution and toppled the old regime did not know how to make a new government. Those who did know how were the ones from the old regime. Yeltsin brought those same people back to power and subsequently worked mightily against the very democratic forces that had been the mainstay of his support when he was a populist politician.
Yeltsin's memoir offers no evidence to suggest that he was ever interested in the systematic mobilization of Russia's democratic forces. He had no vision of the nation's identity and future; his concerns were far more personal. His obsession with the grand gesture--something that required an element of surprise--made him fret constantly about leaks. Not only did he crave the limelight, he always tried to stun the world by unexpected actions: "If the news were to leak, the whole effect would be lost," he writes about his decision to resign. "Any leak, any advance talk, any forecasts or proposals would put the impact of the decision in jeopardy." In June 1999, at the end of the war with Yugoslavia, he ordered the Russian brigade serving on peacekeeping duty in Bosnia to steal a march on NATO and occupy the Pristina airport in Kosovo even though he knew it was an empty maneuver. "I decided that Russia must make a crowning gesture, even if it had no military significance," he writes. This was, he adds, "a sign of our moral victory."
Ironically, the first wave of opposition to Yeltsin's policies came from the very people who brought him to power. They argued that his economic reforms had little to do with a genuine free market but amounted to a Bolshevik-style, top-down expropriation and redistribution of assets in disguise. In The Tragedy of Russia's Reforms: Market Bolshevism Against Democracy, Peter Reddaway and Dmitri Glinski note that by late 1993, most democrats--"an entire generation of talented and idealistic would-be leaders of Russia's body politic and civil society"--were "pushed off the political stage along with the democratic movement as a whole."
Reddaway, a professor at George Washington University and former director of the Washington-based Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, and Dmitri Glinski, a senior research associate at the Moscow-based Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of World Economy and International Relations, teamed up to produce a critical analysis of the Yeltsin years in power. It is a finely argued and frequently provocative account that deserves a respectful hearing.
Reddaway and Glinski believe Yeltsin had "little commitment to democracy, the national interest, or the economic development of his nation." His rule was an age of blight. The destruction of Russia's intellectual assets was particularly severe. The number of scientists has shrunk from 3.4 million to 1.3 million. Russia's net financial loss from the decline in its science is estimated at between $500 billion and $600 billion annually.
The overall damage inflicted on the economy, they write, exceeds that of the comparable American experience during the Great Depression or, again, the industrial loss inflicted on Russia in World War II. High-tech industries suffered the worst. Production in electronics fell by 78 percent between 1991 and 1995. In 1997 imports made up half the Russian consumer market.
The picture of devastation looks even grimmer in light of dramatic declines in energy production (since 1991 oil production has declined by 50 percent, gas by 13 percent and electricity generation by 20 percent). Lack of investment in electricity generation will have potentially far-reaching consequences for the military and civilian economies, with the prospect of future migrations away from the frigid northern zones of the country. Brownouts have already forced a population exodus from the city of Norilsk.
"For the first time in recent world history," Reddaway and Glinski write,
one of the major industrial nations with a highly educated society has dismantled the results of several decades of economic development...and slipped into the ranks of countries that are conventionally categorized as "Third World." To make this experience even more dramatic, this comprehensive national collapse occurred at the same time as the nation's leaders and some of their allies in the West promised Russians that they were just about to join the family of democratic and prosperous nations.
Instead of promoting democracy, these analysts argue, "Yeltsin and his associates disbanded the new post-Soviet parliament by force and emasculated its successor, blocked the development of an independent judicial branch, reduced the power and revenue base of local self-government, and by 1994 had imposed a regime of Byzantine authoritarianism on the country."
The authors contend not only that Russia's social and economic degradation "can and should be reversed" but that it is in the national interest of the United States and Western Europe to assist in that process. A more stable Russia, they say, would provide better hope for viable security arrangements and for a more cooperative relationship between Moscow and key international organizations.
But this is a Catch-22. Given the fact that Moscow is not able to service its foreign debt, no influx of foreign capital is to be expected. Who wants to invest in a country lacking comprehensive, clear and effective tax legislation?
In his book Post-Soviet Russia, the distinguished Russian historian Roy Medvedev also chronicles the failures of Yeltsin's rule, arguing that Russia's plunge to capitalism was both precipitate and ill conceived.
Yeltsin first privatized the area of public safety, which led to the creation of private armies and mafias. At the same time, the managers of state-owned firms created private companies and moved the cash flow to offshore banks in Cyprus. New banks were formed and made fortunes in currency transactions.
There was something very Russian about the whole endeavor. Yeltsin approached it much in the way Peter the Great and other czars carried out their modernization programs; "capitalist perestroika" was imposed from above. Medvedev notes Yeltsin's explanation: "We had to forcibly introduce a real market place, just as potatoes were introduced under Catherine the Great."
The remark suggests, perhaps inadvertently, how vague was Yeltsin's grasp of the magnitude of the undertaking. Once prices were allowed to float freely, they immediately jumped fifteen to twenty times over. Hyperinflation wiped out life savings of the population. It touched off the flight of capital, as profits from exports were deposited in Western banks as a hedge against inflation. Low domestic prices on raw materials generated illegal exports and the emergence of illicit trade. Domestic production declined sharply. In 1998 the government once again devalued the ruble and froze bank accounts.
Another of Yeltsin's failings was his lack of sound judgment about people. Medvedev catalogues the incompetent, inexperienced young men with whom Yeltsin chose to surround himself. One was a junior foreign ministry bureaucrat, Andrei Kozyrev, who was made foreign minister. Medvedev likens another Yeltsin aide, Boris Nemtsov, to the character of a confidence man in Gogol's Dead Souls.
Why did Yeltsin entrust so much of the government to a young and green journalist, Yegor Gaidar? During their very first meeting, Gaidar assured Yeltsin that the shift to the market could be accomplished in one year. Yeltsin himself provided an account of the "surgical precision" of his decision to place Gaidar in charge: "It's a curious thing, but I couldn't help being affected by the magic of his name," Yeltsin wrote later. Gaidar's grandfather, Arkady Gaidar, had been a famous children's writer whose books were read by generations of Soviet kids, Yeltsin explained, "Including myself. And my daughters. And so I had faith in the inherited talent of Yegor, son of Timur, grandson of Arkady Gaidar."
Gaidar's advisers included a group of Western experts, led by Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard and Anders Aslund of the Carnegie Endowment [see Janine R. Wedel, "The Harvard Boys Do Russia," June 1, 1998]. The Russians were very receptive to outside advice; they thought the West was genuinely concerned. But expert recommendations failed to "take into account the structure of the Russian economy and its particular features" and thus did more harm than good, Medvedev believes. He goes even further and suggests that the experts were trying foremost to preserve the interests of the wealthy Western countries.
"Shock therapy" sent the country reeling with pain, causing tremendous harm to an economy that, despite all its known shortcomings, did include first-rate firms and research and development laboratories. This was particularly true of the military-industrial complex, which employed millions of highly skilled workers, technicians and engineers. Yeltsin failed to reorient these resources to the production of consumer goods. At the same time, there was a sharp drop in government orders for military-industry goods.
But the calamity also created opportunities for people to become rich almost overnight. For aficionados, Medvedev provides a detailed analysis of this new but small class of Russians who acquired vast fortunes during what can only be described as the looting of Russia. One of them is the subject of Paul Klebnikov's excellent book Godfather of the Kremlin, which is a must-read for anyone interested in the Yeltsin era.
Klebnikov, a senior editor at Forbes, makes its amply clear that thievery on such a scale has occurred with the cooperation of top political leaders. The businessmen, in a strict sense, committed no crimes and broke no laws; they were advised and helped by Yeltsin's young reformers in the Kremlin. Virtually all the people around Yeltsin, including members of his family and the President himself, are portrayed as deeply corrupt. "Yeltsin was very quickly compromised by all those things that accompany limitless power: flattery, luxury, absolute irresponsibility," Yeltsin's former chief of security is quoted as saying.
Klebnikov's vivid portrait of Boris Berezovsky, until recently one of the wealthiest men in Russia, is closely documented by detailing financial transactions, strategies and alliances. Berezovsky's fortunes rose after the publication in the early 1990s of Yeltsin's memoirs Notes of a President, which Berezovsky had partly underwritten. Having expected to make $1 million, Yeltsin was disappointed by his far more modest proceeds. At that point, according to Klebnikov, Berezovsky began putting funds into Yeltsin's personal account at Barclays Bank in London, explaining that this was income generated by the memoir. Berezovsky in turn became a Yeltsin favorite (by 1994 Yeltsin had $3 million in the account).
In addition to Berezovsky, a former scientist turned car dealer, Klebnikov skillfully describes other members of the clique of predatory oligarchs who plundered the country's most important assets with the connivance of the regime. "He and his crony capitalists produced no benefit to Russia's consumers, industries, or treasury. No new wealth was created." They did, however, produce substantial benefits to Yeltsin and his entourage.
Yeltsin, in Midnight Diaries, dismisses such allegations. "In fact, these people don't have any links to the criminal world. These are not robber barons and not the heads of mafia clans. These are representatives of big capital who have entered into close and complex relationships with the government." The evidence indicates otherwise, though. Klebnikov's presentation suggests that Berezovsky was involved in mafia wars, that he attempted to have his chief rival killed and that he was the target of an assassination attempt himself. (Berezovsky was badly injured and his driver decapitated by a bomb placed near his automobile.)
Klebnikov may indeed go too far, however, when he asserts that Berezovsky, as a private individual, managed to "hijack the state." Berezovsky's influence was always directly linked to his proximity to Yeltsin. Yeltsin appointed the oligarch to several top posts, including that of deputy chairman of the National Security Council. But ultimately Berezovsky remained a moneyman who was never allowed into the charmed circle of power. Political power in Russia, when it came to a crunch, always had more punch than financial muscle.
Klebnikov adds his voice to recent charges that the Clinton Administration stuck by Yeltsin even though it knew all along about the unsavory nature of his regime. The Administration, he writes, "while trumpeting the principles of democracy and the free market, repeatedly ignored evidence that the Yeltsin regime was a kleptocracy."
Gaidar, the architect of Yeltsin's shock therapy, acknowledged in a 1997 book that the entire Yeltsin program was a failure. "Unfortunately," he writes, "the combination of imperial rhetoric, economic adventurism, and large-scale theft seems likely to become the long-term determinants of Russian realities." The term now commonly used to describe Russia is a "bandit state." Reddaway and Glinski call it "market bolshevism."
The new books have punched some big holes in the Yeltsin legend as well as in Clinton's own uncritical backing for the Russian president. Reddaway and Glinski provide some evidence that Yeltsin used his secret police to stage "a provocation that unleashed violence on the part of the opposition, thus giving Yeltsin a pretext to proceed with a bloody crackdown on the parliament." Clinton joined Yeltsin's war against Parliament, saying, "We cannot afford to be in the position of wavering at this moment, or backing off or giving any encouragement to people who clearly want to derail the election process and are not committed to reform." An unnamed US official was quoted by Newsweek as saying the Administration "would have supported Yeltsin even if his response had been more violent than it was." (Official figures say 187 people died and almost 500 were wounded in the attack.) Charles Blitzer, chief economist on Russia for the World Bank, commented on the incident: "I've never had so much fun in my life." Another Western economist advising the Yeltsin government was quoted in the press as saying, "With parliament out of the way, this is a great time for reform."
There is also evidence that the 1993 referendum on a new constitution--which gave Yeltsin extensive personal powers--was in fact rigged. Reddaway and Glinski cite various infractions, including intimidation and other irregularities engaged in by the Yeltsin people. The minimum voter turnout was reduced from 50 percent to 25 percent; the minimum wage was raised; television access for oppositionists was sharply curtailed. "By all indications, the constitution did not gain the necessary minimum of voter support, but the authorities declared it [had] been approved," they write. "The gap was evidently closed by government vote fraud."
Yeltsin's 1996 re-election campaign--financed by Berezovsky and other oligarchs and mafia barons--"was marked by spectacular violations of the law on the part of the incumbent," Reddaway and Glinski write. Yeltsin started with an approval rating of less than 10 percent and succeeded in getting re-elected by spending thirty times more than the legal spending limit. One incident is telling: An aide of Anatoly Chubais, a key Yeltsin assistant at the time, was caught leaving his office with $200,000 in cash in a suitcase. Apart from direct distribution of money, to win votes Yeltsin used government funds on a lavish scale for tax breaks; made cash transfers to institutions, garden owners and small farmers; and disbursed government credits. The Economist estimated that the effort cost the Russian treasury some $10 billion. The aggressive giveaway dwarfed the promises of all other contenders combined. But the most powerful weapon in Yeltsin's hands was the broadcast media. The brazen violations of the law on campaign coverage were summarized by the European Institute for the Media: Yeltsin got 53 percent of prime-time coverage; the Communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, 18 percent; and all other candidates combined, 11 percent.
After the election, the oligarchs divided up among themselves the most valuable state companies, which Yeltsin privatized under fire-sale conditions. But corruption permeated all levels of government, and included Yeltsin's "young reformers." One of them is said to have handled an estimated $178 million in precious stones, gold and antique jewelry smuggled out of the Russian treasury, to be sold in San Francisco and Antwerp. The bribery involved in "trading" operations was on an epic scale. The wives of the interior minister and his first deputy, invited on a three-day shopping trip to Switzerland by a commodities trader, bought $300,000 worth of furs, perfumes, watches and so on (and carted the haul in twenty pieces of excess luggage)--all paid for by the trader's firm.
Primakov was the only prime minister who made a determined effort to fight corruption and hold Berezovsky and others accountable to the law. This may have brought stability and trust back to Russian politics, but his corruption probe was extremely dangerous for Yeltsin. Moreover, Primakov did not offer enough of a guarantee that Yeltsin himself would not face prosecution after leaving office. Finally, Klebnikov says, Primakov's government evoked loud protests from Washington. He was replaced as prime minister by the minister of internal affairs, the man who had promised to protect Berezovsky. ("The dismissal of Primakov was my personal victory," Berezovsky later told Le Figaro.) Here lie the reasons for the selection of Putin.
Putin and his people are left with the overarching need for a qualitatively new strategy of economic and social recovery. Yeltsin's course reached a dead end; polls suggest that discontent with capitalist experimentation now permeates all classes--workers, peasants, the army, intellectuals. Whatever emerges in this decade in Russia is likely to be viewed as a communist reformation--a moderate shade of red--that would allow some degree of private property, individual freedom and entrepreneurship. How this will evolve is going to depend on Putin himself. An argument can be made that the origins of Communism's collapse may lie partly in a car trip the young Gorbachev and his wife made in the 1960s, which allowed them to observe that even Italian peasants lived better than Russian elites. Putin served as a KGB officer in East Germany for six years in the 1980s, but even that exposure was enough for his wife to complain about the empty shelves back home in Russia.
How will history judge Yeltsin? On one level, to use the image of one of his acolytes, Yeltsin could be compared to Ilya Muromets, the peasant hero of medieval epics who one day is bravely slaying Russia's foes, then spends weeks sleeping on the stove in his hut.
On another level, however, Yeltsin's final grand gestures do set an enormously important precedent. During the twentieth century ten men stood at Russia's helm, but only one of them--Yeltsin--was actually elected by the people. Moreover, there was no regular system of power transfer in Russia throughout the twentieth century, and that was perhaps the most important cause of the country's difficulties and setbacks. Five of its ten leaders died in office, three were removed by revolutions and one by a palace coup. Yeltsin alone left office before the end of his term. This indeed established a much-needed precedent to legitimize an orderly system of succession. In the context of Russian history, this has been progress.
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