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.
** In October 1993, Yeltsin used tank cannons to destroy not only the Parliament that had brought him to power and defended him during the attempted coup of 1991 but the entire political, constitutional order of Russia’s post-Communist republic. The US government and media, with few exceptions, acted as Yeltsin’s cheerleaders as the Russian President’s tanks pounded Russia’s first ever popularly elected and fully independent legislature. A senior US official told the New York Times that “if Yeltsin suspends an anti-democratic parliament, it is not necessarily an antidemocratic act”; and an unnamed US official was quoted by Newsweek as saying the Clinton Administration “would have supported Yeltsin even if his response had been more violent than it was.” (187 people died and almost 500 were wounded in the attack.) The Nation, almost alone among US media outlets, deplored Yeltsin’s act, which led to Russia’s super-presidency and obedient Parliament today.
** In December 1994, Yeltsin launched by decree a war against the tiny breakaway republic of Chechnya. By the time it ended in a temporary truce in 1996, the war had killed tens of thousands of civilians, many of them ethnic Russians ; eviscerated and alienated the army; made a mockery of constitutional federalism; and, barely noted, earned the horrifying distinction of being the first civil war to take place in a nuclearized country. While Russian planes, tanks and artillery rained death on the Chechen capital of Grozny, President Clinton saw fit to compare Yeltsin to Abraham Lincoln.
** In 1996, Yeltsin’s reelection campaign—financed by a handful of oligarchs including now-exiled Putin opponent Boris Berezovsky and aided by pro-Kremlin media bias and censorship–was marked by spectacular legal violations. No less enduring in its consequences was the most aggressive giveaway on Yeltsin’s watch –the notorious “loans-for-shares” agreement–which allowed a small group of men, in exchange for financing Yeltsin’s campaign, to take control of and Russia’s most valuable economic assets.(It was a colossal piece of criminality glossed over at the time by almost all US media outlets as “market reform”.) Thus was birthed the rapacious oligarchy–leading one Russian journalist to remark the other day that Yeltsin was not “the father of democracy” but “the father of the oligarchy.”
**In August 1998, following a number of financial dealings that victimized or failed to benefit most Russians, the government after pledging not to do so,suddenly devalued the ruble, defaulted on its debts and froze bank accounts. In effect, people’s savings were once again expropriated, this time decimating the post-1991 middle class.
Such events help explains why for millions of Russians, Yeltsin’s rule was an age of blight not democracy. This magazine never lost sight of the social and economic disaster he presided over. But almost no one in the US media wanted to tell that story. Preferring Panglossian narratives, few cared to report that since 1991 Russia’s reality included the worst peacetime industrial depression of the 20th century. In 1999, when the UN Development program reported that ” a human crisis of monumental proportions is emerging in the former Soviet Union,” the report was virtually ignored. And while, as Professor Peter Reddaway and Dmitri Glinski wrote, “for the first time in recent world history one of the major industrial nations with a highly educated society has dismantled the results of several decades of economic development,” American press coverage preferred to run glowing stories about Yeltsin’s crusading “young reformers” –sometimes called “democratic giants” — showing a cold indifference to the terrible human consequences of the crusade. (A Reuters journalist later made the observation: “The pain is edited out.” ) As Stephen Cohen wrote, “sustaining such a Manichaean narrative in the face of so many conflicting realities turned American journalists into boosters for US policy and cheerleaders for Yeltsin’s Kremlin.”
Neither these cold realities nor the political and economic consequences today have chastened the the booster-journalists. Indeed, while many of the obituaries in newspapers that were Yeltsin’s most uncritical supporters at the time now give a more balanced account than they did at the time –there is no acknowledgement that they helped promote the acts they now criticize or regret.
Embedded in those obituaries is another argument, perhaps stated most clearly by Strobe Talbott, a Russia expert and Clinton’s primary adviser on Yeltsin’s Russia, that while there are valid criticisms of Yeltsin there was no alternative route to what he imposed. Yet the majority of Russian pro-market economists warned against “shock therapy” –abetted by US-sponsored policies–foreseeing its tragic outcome. The alternative road they offered was more evolutionary, a gradualist approach, a “third way” that would have averted catastrophic impoverishment, plundering and lawlessness. Time has proved them right.
Certainly, the anti-democratic consequences of Yeltsinism are clear. (Last year, a respected Russian survey revealed that nearly 70 percent of Russians polled believe the country needs an authoritarian ruler.) Yeltsin’s legacy to his anointed successor, Putin, was an impoverished, polarized and dangerously unstable nation. And his succession had much to do with Yeltsin’s fear of being held responsible for Russia’s collapse and looting. (Indeed, one of Putin’s first acts was to issue a decree protecting Yeltsin from future prosecution for corruption.) As a result, as The Nation argued at the time, Putin’s rise to power and his semi-authoritarian rule today are best understood as the outgrowth of Yeltsin and Yeltsinism –which Washington so assiduously championed during the 1990s.