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CIS: Weighing The Yeltsin Legacy

  • Julie Corwin

http://gdb.rferl.org/607D60E2-3CF3-47B4-8669-D92F5F279256_w203.gif --> http://gdb.rferl.org/607D60E2-3CF3-47B4-8669-D92F5F279256_mw800_mh600.gif (RFE/RL) April 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin's death at 76 --> http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2007/04/49d6b145-721b-4e57-b920-0410d5225e57.html -- an unexpectedly advanced age, given both the average life expectancy in Russia and what could best be termed Yeltsin's unhealthy lifestyle -- follows the deaths of many of his contemporaries under much less comfortable circumstances: liberal legislators Sergei Yushenkov and Galina Starovoitova, and journalists Anna Politkovskaya, Yury Shchekochikhin, and Vladislav Listev.


All of these people were murdered, or died under unexplained circumstances, in a climate that the lawlessness of the Yeltsin era helped to create.


While Yeltsin was able to enjoy his retirement, traveling to international tennis tournaments and vacationing in Sardinia, he effectively disappeared from Russian political life. Unlike Gorbachev, he did not use his status as a former head of state to lobby for causes or try to shape his historical legacy.


That legacy has become considerably tarnished in recent years. Popular accounts of the Yeltsin years, spanning from 1991 to 1999, have made liberal use of the word "kleptocracy." Critics have focused on the loans-for-shares scheme in which valuable state assets were sold for a pittance, and the staggering decline in real income that followed the launch of his government's economic reforms.

He was a deeply flawed individual who lacked humility and consistency.

Much attention of late has dwelled on the jump in the mortality rate that occurred in the 1990s. An extra 2.5 to 3 million Russian adults died between 1992 and 2001 than would have been expected based on the mortality rate in 1991, according to a 2003 study.


Of course, transitions from one political and economic system to another are never easy. But Russian citizens throughout the 1990s could look at life in neighboring countries, such as Estonia and Hungary, and legitimately wonder why things were so much worse in Russia, a country with an abundance of natural resources.


Russia's 'Quiet Acceptance'


Many blame the chaos of the Yeltsin years for the Russian public's quiet acceptance -- if not embrace -- of current Russian President Vladimir Putin's ever-tightening control over Russian society. Putin gave the Russian public what it wanted from politics after the upheavals of the Yeltsin years: predictability. Yes, politics become a lot more boring, but it was also lot more stable.


Yeltsin, 1996 (TASS)

While Boris Yeltsin must share the blame for the excesses of his era and the Russian public's resulting distaste for "democracy," he also deserves credit for what he did not do. Russia escaped the wrenching violence that often accompanies major political and economic change. After all, Russia did not have to endure another civil war like that which followed the Bolshevik Revolution.


Of course, the lack of bloodshed can partly be attributed to the fact that the Soviet ruling classes did not experience a wholesale disenfranchisement. Yeltsin kept the peace through co-optation rather than suppression, often rewarding loyalty rather than competence.


Members of the Soviet nomenklatura still administer -- if not possess -- much of the country's riches. Consider just one example: Vagit Alekperov, the head of LUKoil, named by Forbes as one of the world's richest people last year, was an "oil general" in the 1980s long before Yeltsin tapped him to be deputy oil minister in 1991.


Flawed Leader


While Yeltsin was clearly not the economic and political reformer that the West initially made him out to be, he deserves credit for his acknowledgment of other peoples' right to self-determination. To appreciate Yeltsin's restraint, one only has to ponder for a moment or so how his successor would have reacted to the 1991 treaty dissolving the Soviet Union or to the "parade of sovereignties," when one Russian region after another declared its independence from Moscow's formal authority. Granted, Yeltsin did not enjoy the same level of support from the military and intelligence service that Putin does. He nevertheless could have made an appeal to Russian nationalism, but he resisted playing that card through most of his career.


Boris Yeltsin made many mistakes. He was a deeply flawed individual who lacked humility and consistency. He was also a person who was obviously physically unwell. Years of heavy drinking not only destroyed his good looks but also appeared to slow his speech, if not his wits, blunting his once keen political judgment. But history, nevertheless, is likely to look kindly on the changes he was able to oversee without major bloodshed.

Forgotten Chechnya
A Russian sapper searches a Grozny street for improvised explosive devices in June 2006 (TASS)

THE CRYING SUN: RFE/RL and the American Committee for Peace in the Caucasus recently hosted a screening of the film "The Crying Sun: The Impact Of War In The Mountains Of Chechnya." The filmmaker and activists discussed the making of the film and their work in Chechnya at the briefing.


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