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Russia: Analysis from Washington - A Transforming Resignation

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 31 December 1999 (RFE/RL) - Boris Yeltsin's resignation as Russian president appears likely to fundamentally alter the relationship between Moscow and the West, at a minimum putting cooperation between the two on hold for a certain period of time and more likely reducing the level of cooperation over the longer haul.

There are three reasons for that conclusion. First, as has been true for much of the last generation, the West's relationship with Moscow has been more personal than political. That is, it has been between individual leaders in the West and the man in charge in Moscow. That was true in Leonid Brezhnev's time, in Mikhail Gorbachev's time, and it has been true in Yeltsin's time as well.

Every change at the top in Moscow has required the establishment of new personal ties. That inevitably takes time and hence inevitably becomes the occasion for intense deliberations about what kind of a relationship it should be. That is especially likely now because of Acting President Vladimir Putin's past as a security officer and his current actions in Chechnya.

While Western leaders can be expected to praise Yeltsin and promise continued close ties with Putin, virtually all of them will be under pressure from politicians and analysts in their own countries who viewed Yeltsin at best as a fallen hero because of his actions at the end of the Soviet Union but who see Putin as an openly authoritarian figure opposed to much that Western countries want.

Second, precisely because of Yeltsin's ties with Western leaders and because of his past services to the dismantling of the Soviet Union and moves toward democratization and free market economics, Western leaders have been restrained in their reaction to a variety of recent Russian moves that otherwise might have drawn far more criticism and might have led to a reduction of assistance.

Moscow's opposition to the NATO campaign in Yugoslavia and its moves to seize Pristina ahead of allied forces, its increasing ties with Iran and Iraq and other radically anti-Western countries, and its war against Chechnya and open discrimination against people from the Caucasus all are things that many in the West disagree with and oppose.

But as long as Yeltsin was in office, most political leaders were constrained from taking any genuinely tough actions. Now that Yeltsin is gone, the situation will change. Some diplomatists and leaders will of course argue that the West must proceed steadily and carefully and thus will argue against any break. But others will now be able to raise their voices to argue that this is exactly the right time to send Moscow a message.

And third, Yeltsin personally, and even more his Western supporters, have put great store in the idea that he would be the first Russian leader in history to finish out his term and then be replaced through by a democratic election. Now, that is not going to happen, and it will tarnish both his place in history and hence Moscow's standing in the West.

As his supporters will no doubt point out, Yeltsin's resignation is constitutional. That is, it is provided for in the December 1993 Russian Federation basic law that he helped to craft. But by resigning rather than serving out his term, Yeltsin raises questions about himself, about his successor, and about Russia's standing as a country moving toward democracy.

Some in both Russia and the West are likely to view Yeltsin's action as deeply political, as a way of giving his hand-picked successor Putin the best chance to rule Russia in the future by allowing him to call a snap election before the boost he has received from the initial fighting in Chechnya disappears.

But these same people are also going to ask whether the former president did this so that Putin could keep Yeltsin and the members of his family and entourage from facing embarrassing legal questions in the future.

Others are going to focus on Putin himself. Last month, one Moscow magazine featured the new acting president on its cover as "the spymaster of all Russians." Putin's background in the intelligence agencies may lead some to conclude that he has staged a kind of palace coup, pressuring Yeltsin to go now as the price of guaranteeing Yeltsin that he will not have to face criminal charges for his past actions.

Even if such speculation is baseless, it seems certain to become part of the internal debate as Western countries decide how to deal with the new president of Russia, a man who has defined himself only to the extent of launching a war in the Caucasus and denouncing the West's efforts to end the bloodletting in Kosovo.

But last and most important perhaps for the future of east-west ties, many in Western governments are certain to view Yeltsin's resignation and even more Putin's elevation as evidence that Russia has not made as much progress toward democracy as they had hoped and even said.

These are the questions that are almost certain to be on the minds of Western statesmen even as they deliver their already prepared messages of praise for Yeltsin and his past contributions.