Boris Yeltsin’s sudden resignation as President on New Year’s Eve provoked ritual praise of his legacy by the same editorial voices that have been championing him for nine years as Russia’s great hope. Although there are different schools of thought, our view–widespread in Russia but virtually absent in the US media–is that the post-Communist “transition” Yeltsin presided over has been for most Russians a social and economic disaster.
As Stephen F. Cohen wrote in these pages, “so great has been Russia’s economic and thus social catastrophe that we must now speak of another unprecedented development: the literal demodernization of a twentieth-century country.” The middle class, the bedrock of a stable society, was wiped out by the “shock therapy” imposed by Yeltsin and his cabal of “young reformers.” Some 70 percent of families now live below or barely above the official poverty line. Russia is undergoing a demographic and public health crisis unprecedented in peacetime. The power and authority of a nuclear state have substantially disintegrated, while corruption and asset-looting have run rampant. And while elements of democracy still exist, most left over from the Gorbachev years, Yeltsin undermined others, first by using tanks to shell an elected Parliament in 1993 and then by pushing through an authoritarian constitution, available to any would-be dictator. The Russian media were freer in the early nineties than they are today. As was apparent in the December parliamentary elections, national television is controlled by intertwined oligarchic and government interests, while the largest newspapers are the playthings of competing tycoons with enormous influence in the Kremlin. In short, Yeltsin’s legacy to his anointed successor, acting President Vladimir Putin, is an embittered, polarized, impoverished nation.
We don’t yet know the full story behind Yeltsin’s resignation. His contradictory speech gave the impression of a leader who had been persuaded, gently or firmly, that he must vacate the Kremlin now to secure the best possible deal or risk a far worse outcome in 2000. What we do know is that this succession has nothing to do with economic reform or democracy and much to do with the regime’s fear of being held responsible for the collapse and looting of Russia. One of Putin’s first acts was to issue a decree protecting Yeltsin from future prosecution for corruption. Yeltsin, his blood relatives and “the family”–the oligarchs close to the Kremlin–are desperate to avoid prosecution for the corruption scandals in which they are implicated. Indeed, last August the unknown Putin was appointed prime minister because he was considered a loyal praetorian successor who would guarantee their property and protect them from retribution.
The gains of Yeltsin’s leaving sooner rather than later were, at least, transparent. With the advantages of incumbency and by moving the presidential election up to March 26, Putin can capitalize on his enormous popularity from leading the brutal war in Chechnya. He will also command the powers of the state, the media, the loyalty of most regional governors (some of whom reportedly helped falsify parliamentary election returns) and vast resources squeezed from privatized industries to undermine his two leading opponents, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov of the Fatherland Party and Communist Party leader Gennadi Zyuganov. The war’s popularity and these czarlike powers of incumbency were the main reasons for the strong showing of the pro-Kremlin parties in the parliamentary elections. Furthermore, there are signs that another economic collapse, a new default crisis, may loom–yet another reason behind the Putin faction’s eagerness to have the elections as soon as possible.
The 47-year-old Putin remains an unknown and untested figure. He has no diplomatic or domestic economic experience. The only certainty is that for the first time since Yuri Andropov briefly led the Soviet Union in 1982-84, Russia has a secret-policeman as its leader. Putin is a career KGB official who has never held elected office. His political experience consists of dismissing indictments against corrupt oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky, apprenticing to the corrupt mayor of St. Petersburg and serving as deputy to an official in the presidential administration who is a target of Russian and Swiss investigations into Kremlin bribery and embezzlement scandals.
In Russian politics three months can be like three decades. If Chechnya becomes a quagmire, the economy sours or the censorship now in force develops leaks and the true Russian casualty figures emerge–there are reports of mounting casualties–Putin’s star could decline and that of Primakov, his leading potential opponent, could rise again. (A year ago, Primakov’s popularity ratings were as high as Putin’s are now.)
It is unclear what Putin will do if he is elected. He has made statements suggesting he might seek legitimacy through an assault on corruption. To do that, however, he will need an independent power base. For now, despite the removal of Yeltsin’s daughter, indications are that he will serve the interests of the Kremlin inner circle who created him and who have profited so handsomely from the privatization process.
It is also unclear what Putin will mean for the West. US policy on Russia has been in a state of collapse for some time and is now held captive to elections in both countries. Arguably, Washington has less influence in Russia today than it did during parts of the cold war–witness the futility of Western condemnation of the Chechen war and the electoral success of anti-Western, nationalistic rhetoric in the parliamentary elections.
Western governments have cautiously welcomed Putin as a man committed to reform, but he is more accurately viewed as instinctively authoritarian. Through his ideas runs a common thread–the need for the restoration of a strong state. In December, over a government Internet site, Putin declared that Western-style “liberal” politics and economics are not suited to Russia. And his call for a greater role for the military and security services, along with increased investment in Russia’s ailing military-industrial complex, suggests that Putin supports a more assertive Russian foreign policy within “a multipolar world”–code for opposing the expansion of US influence. He has also cultivated the military’s desire for revenge and rehabilitation in Chechnya, thereby winning its support as has no other prime minister in recent history. Using the authoritarian constitution that Yeltsin jury-rigged in 1993 to give himself added power, Putin might take Augusto Pinochet for his model, as many Russian “democratic” market reformers have urged him to do. He has already warned that attempts to violate the Constitution will be “crushed.”
To be sure, a larger state role would be welcome if it meant regulating the economy to better serve the Russian people and ending the crony capitalism of Yeltsin and his associates. A stronger state that does not impose repression and censorship, that collects taxes, pays wages and pensions, keeps a vigilant watch over the nuclear stockpile, prosecutes large-scale corruption and repairs the social safety net shredded under Yeltsin is what Russia urgently requires.
For now, however, we are witnessing in Putin’s rise the emergence of an ironhanded leader who, by exploiting Russians’ desire for law and order, has struck a sympathetic chord among millions sick of the corruption of the past years. Perhaps that will be Yeltsin’s final legacy.