Russian President Boris Yeltsin will be remembered, among other things, for his sense of drama. Last Friday’s announcement that he would be stepping down as president was perfectly in character. It focused international attention on him — at least momentarily — as the world prepared to meet the new millennium; it was a grand gesture, cloaked in the language of the national interest; and it effectively placed the burden for solving Russia’s many problems on the shoulders of his heir apparent, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Mr. Yeltsin leaves a mixed legacy, but it is far better that he go now. His record would have been much brighter had he left sooner.
Less than a decade ago, Mr. Yeltsin symbolized heroism. In one brave moment, he metamorphosed from party hack into the repository of all the hopes that the world placed in the Russian people as they made permanent their rejection of communism. In the eight years since then, Mr. Yeltsin has evolved again. Now the defiant politician is a sad reminder of the old order he replaced: a bloated geriatric, befuddled and out of touch, sustained by modern medicine and more concerned with his personal privileges (and those of his family) than the state of his country.
It did not have to be this way. Mr. Yeltsin was an accomplished politician. He helped consolidate democracy in Russia. Of course, he will be remembered for climbing aboard a Red Army tank during the August 1991 coup. But he remained committed to democratic principles and resisted the totalitarian temptation. Mr. Yeltsin was a capricious leader, but he obeyed the law. Despite regular whispering campaigns that a suspension of the constitution was imminent, he never took that step. There were continuing fears of a communist or nationalist resurgence, but democratic principles were embedded in Russian politics during the president’s tenure. It is significant that no credible party now challenges the legitimacy of Russian democracy.
Unfortunately, Mr. Yeltsin is also the president who sent the military against the Parliament in 1993 when the legislature refused to cooperate with him. He failed to guarantee the independence of the legal system, and benefited from a complaisant media run by his supporters that rallied its resources behind him at every challenge to his power — and theirs.
On the economic front, Mr. Yeltsin’s legacy is even more mixed. During his tenure, the Russian economy opened to the world, state assets were sold off and market-oriented reforms adopted. There is ample reason to be unhappy with the results: Reform and privatization were not backedstopped by the legal and social infrastructure necessary to ensure that they were not abused. As a result, national assets were systematically looted, a small cabal of well-connected businessmen enriched itself at the country’s expense and, after teetering on the brink of crisis, the economy plunged into the abyss 18 months ago. A generation of Russians have lost their life’s savings and now know a poverty worse than any time since the deprivations of World War II.
Much of the blame for that belongs on the shoulders of the prime ministers who implemented policies poorly. But Mr. Yeltsin is also at fault. He failed to lead. He did not push policies that would have strengthened Russia’s economy. Instead, he vacillated, jettisoning one prime minister after another when they looked capable of challenging his popularity or when their mistakes were so grievous and glaring that they threatened his approval ratings. And all the while, he turned a blind eye to the corruption and malfeasance committed by his family and closest supporters. As a result, Mr. Yeltsin was forced to hang on until he could find a successor capable of protecting him and his family after his term in office expired.
Apparently, he has found his man in Mr. Putin, a virtually unknown member of the security apparatus who Mr. Yeltsin plucked from obscurity to assume the prime minister’s office just five months ago. Today the new prime minister is riding a wave of popularity as Russian forces continue to control events in Chechnya, but Mr. Putin’s future depends on the outcome there. A presidential election must be held in 90 days, on March 26, and if the war sours during that time, Mr. Putin will pay.
But that will not be Mr. Yeltsin’s problem. He will retire in style, with a pension, a dacha and immunity from future prosecution. There, he may ponder why, when he resigned, he had to ask the Russian people’s forgiveness “for the fact that many of the dreams we shared did not come true.” It is a question that other governments should consider as well, for their support for Mr. Yeltsin — even when it was undeserved — reinforced some of his worst instincts. In the future, those governments should be more begrudging in their praise and more critical in their evaluation in Russian policy.
Until then, we can only hope that Mr. Yeltsin is right, that Russian will not return to the past, and will only move forward. But Russia could be much further along; for that failure, Mr. Yeltsin can only blame himself.
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