Monday, April 23, 2007

Boris Yeltsin's Legacy

Boris Yeltsin was a man who tried to steer the rusting and almost broken country known as Russia onto a path of democracy. He gave the country the liberties it desired, but along with it his presidency was dominated by massive economic chaos, brutal use of force, and almost complete disregard for Russia's ordinary citizens. Mr. Yeltsin was a highly controversial figure: the extent to which he participated in Russia's downfall in the 1990-s is debatable and has no definite answer. Was it Mr. Gorbachev who wrongfully implemented the glasnost reforms, or was the destruction done before, with the giant Soviet Union moving to the end of the cliff, and Mr. Yeltsin taking the driving seat at the point of freefall?

Without a doubt Mr. Yeltsin was at his best in times of deep trouble. He was unbeatable at political sturuggles, playing off his opponents as if in a chess match. It is a miracle he managed to stay in power for almost ten years with the support for him largely gone after the 1994 Chechen crisis.

The Economist argues in its Obituary on Mr. Yeltsin that the:

reforms worked. Russia has a booming consumer-goods market. The robber barons were a lot better than the “red directors” they replaced, whose thinking and loyalties were still rooted in the Communist-run planned economy."

Yet it also admits that:

If the economic reforms now look better than they seemed at the time, his political failures look worse. Shelling Russia’s parliament in 1993, supposedly to dislodge Communist and other hardline deputies who had seized control there, reintroduced the virus of violence into Russian political life. So did the shameful Chechen war of 1994-96, which unleashed the might of the Russian war machine on the small breakaway republic. His rigged victory over the Communist Gennady Zyuganov in the 1996 presidential election spawned a habit of official vote-rigging that has largely destroyed the credibility of Russian elections.

His mistakes were greatest when prompted by his family and their cronies. While keeping the old man topped up with vodka, they hijacked Russia’s political and economic destiny, enriching themselves and discrediting both democracy and capitalism in the eyes of millions of outraged and contemptuous citizens.

Though I believe the economic reforms implemented by the "Chicago Boys" in 1991 under leadership of Yegor Gaidar were flawed from the start, they may have been the only ones. The privatization schemes, and the creation of an oligarchy whose fights spilled into the free press, which they controlled would ultimately bring disbelief among the many Russians about the way freedom was given to them. This is why the fall of an "independent" NTV channel in 2000-2001 was followed by minuscule protests and complaints by the people. This is why the major oligarch of Yeltsin's time Mr. Khodorkovskiy spends his time in jail, with the majority of the population more happy about it than not. This is why so many misalignments have occurred between the view of Russians on democracy and the view of the West on Democracy in Russia. And this may be the reason that Russia has an almost all powerful desire to become a dominant empire again.

The question that stands now is what will be the official statement coming from President Putin, how will the death of Mr. Yeltsin be portrayed in the Russian media, and on what scale will the funeral be held for Russia's first president? Will the secret agreement that many believe is in place between the Yeltsin family and the Kremlin of non-interference into each other's relations be changed? These are questions that will be answered in the current weeks.

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