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Russia: Yeltsin Stood Alone Among Great Expectations

Opportunity lost? Yeltsin on August 22, 1991 (ITAR-TASS) April 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The mixed assessments of Boris Yeltsin's legacy emerging since his death on April 23 reflect as much uncertainty about his times as about the man himself. Figuring out Yeltsin's contribution quickly becomes a fascinating but inconclusive exercise in counterfactual history -- looking not only at the choices he made but at the other realistic possibilities that were available as well.

Although Yeltsin headed an independent Russia from 1991 through 1999, in a real sense only his first term matters. By the time he faced reelection in 1996, his soaring popularity had been reduced to single digits and all the personal and political capital he had in the heady days of 1991 had been spent, for good or ill.

In 1996, he had only two options: either he could participate in a rigged, undemocratic, dishonest, and corrupt election -- selling his political soul to the devil -- or he could stand aside and allow Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov to win, sending Russia on a completely different historical course. Even that choice might not have been available to Yeltsin, since the political machine that stole the election for him could easily have been marshaled in the service of some other candidate.

Iconic Image

Yeltsin will always be remembered as the heroic figure standing on a tank in front of a huge, adoring crowd during the August 1991 coup attempt. The image seems ironically appropriate as a symbol of his first term -- Yeltsin standing virtually alone on top of a powerful machine that he couldn't really control while the whole world gazed at him expectantly.

"I ask forgiveness for not fulfilling some hopes of those people who believed that we would be able to jump from the gray, stagnating, totalitarian past into a bright, rich, and civilized future in one go," Yeltsin said in his December 31, 1999, resignation speech.

An important consequence of the bloodless collapse of the Soviet Union, for which Yeltsin and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev are rightly praised, was that Soviet-era institutions and entrenched interests remained. Most important among these was the Communist-dominated parliament, whose democratic mandate was virtually as solid as Yeltsin's own.

This division produced a 20-month standoff that was violently resolved in October 1993 when Yeltsin ordered tanks to fire on the White House. For most of the rest of Yeltsin's first term, the half-white, half-charred shell of that building loomed over Moscow like a reproach. Later, the hastily repaired building was taken over by the executive branch, another ominously symbolic development.

Once In A Lifetime

The months before the shelling of the White House were an enormous opportunity lost. Lawmakers feuded among themselves and refused to adopt any significant legislation, forcing Yeltsin to rule by undemocratic decrees -- many of which infuriated parliament further and fueled endless debates about impeachment and the like.

It would be an injustice to heap blame for the economic chaos of the early 1990s entirely on Yeltsin, who was locked in a political struggle with foes who realized well that the mounting public discontent worked to their political advantage.

Parliament refused even to confirm Yeltsin's first choice as prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, who served as acting premier from June to December 1992. (Earlier, Yeltsin served as prime minister himself to wage the confrontation with the legislature, and he later replaced Gaidar with the colorless technocrat Viktor Chernomyrdin in an attempt to compromise with lawmakers.)

During this period, the economy collapsed, savings evaporated, and the population suffered enormously. Some Yeltsin critics have even accused him of committing "genocide" against the nation. However, it would be an injustice to heap the blame for this entirely on Yeltsin, who was locked in a political struggle with foes who realized well that the mounting public discontent worked to their political advantage.

Leftist and nationalist lawmakers who opposed Yeltsin's overall course had no political incentive to work with the executive to resolve these problems. Those who criticize Yeltsin for an overdependence on the questionable advice of Western economists during this period must bear in mind that no one else was offering him any meaningful cooperation at all.

Lasting Legacies

As he waged this struggle at the national level, Yeltsin may have placed his hopes for systemic change on the local level. He gave unprecedented degrees of autonomy to local leaders. However, none of them -- even those with substantial democratic credentials such as St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak -- made significant inroads in building local democratic institutions.

Yeltsin addressing People's Congress deputies in September 1991 as Russia's first president (AFP)

Local leaders, even the most democratically minded, maintained their control over local media, suppressed political activism, and kept their grip over electoral mechanisms. It is, therefore, not surprising that many of them are in power to this day.

The biggest mistake of that first term that certainly must be laid on Yeltsin's shoulders was the disastrous and avoidable war in Chechnya, a conflict that continues to shape post-Soviet Russia politically and socially. Yeltsin had many sage advisers -- including lawmakers Galina Starovoitova, Sergei Kovalyov, and Ella Pamfilova -- who warned him against this calamity.

Perhaps the most telling indicator of Yeltsin's democratic intentions was his failure to build a strong, pro-presidential political party. Observers in the 1990s laughed at the seemingly pathetic efforts of parties like Russia's Choice and Our Home Is Russia, which were barely able to get representation in the legislature despite strong government backing.

But with hindsight, those fledgling efforts look like truly democratic initiatives, compared to the juggernaut of Unified Russia that was built so quickly and so powerfully in the immediate post-Yeltsin period. In today's Russia, it is hard to imagine a pro-presidential party garnering just 10 percent of the vote like Our Home Is Russia did in 1995.

Burying The Past

By 1996, Yeltsin's political capital was spent and the country was gripped by a seemingly boundless pessimism. Moreover, Yeltsin's health was wrecked and he was surrounded by opportunists who exploited him.

He had not been able to create any foundation of democratic institutions -- strong independent media, autonomous political parties, governmental and nongovernmental oversight bodies, etc. -- that could have continued the course for which he had such a powerful mandate in 1991. The entrenched Soviet-era interests -- in different guises -- merely waited him out and returned in force when he left the stage.

It seems little surprise that President Vladimir Putin's government is in unseemly haste to bury Yeltsin and have him consigned to history as a noble experiment that failed, rather than allowing him to be seen as a noble experiment they managed to kill.

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev in RFE/RL's Moscow bureau in August 2001 (RFE/RL)

AN UNCERTAIN LEGACY: According to a recent Harris poll, some 59 percent of European Union residents regard former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as the best Soviet/Russian leader. Just 12 percent named Russian President Vladimir Putin and 4 percent picked former Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Within Russia, the situation is quite different, with only 12 percent of Russians saying they have a positive impression of Gorbachev in a recent poll.
Gorbachev has been a frequent guest in RFE/RL's studios, offering his assessment of key domestic and international events.


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