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.