Boris Yeltsin, who passed away on April 23 at the age of 76, was an unlikely revolutionary. Like his predecessor Mikhail Gorbachev and the hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin, he is a transitional figure on the long road from Russia’s communist empire to some destination which we still cannot see.
We remember Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin as someone who, despite his limitations, meant well – and tried to get his country back to the family of nations, to freedom and humanity which so often lack in Russia’s tortured history.
A successful member of the Soviet ruling class, he did his utmost to bring down the communist system. In the process he lead the dismantlement of the Soviet Union, attempting to create, for the first time in Russia’s 1,000 year history, a modern nation state. He almost succeeded.
Yeltsin, the son and grandson of peasants from the Ural mountains, who were punished by Stalin, was a loyal apparatchik in the big industrial city of Sverdlovsk, the heart of the Soviet military-industrial complex. He zealously over-fulfilled construction quotas and led the effort to destroy the Ipatyev House, where Nicholas Romanov, the last czar, his family and his entourage were held and brutally executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
But when promoted to Moscow under Michael Gorbachev to become the country’s construction boss and later, Moscow city communist party secretary, Yeltsin became a populist and challenged the ruling Politburo. He was kicked out in 1988, only to return, as an elected member of Supreme Soviet and the first competitively elected Chairman of the Russian Parliament. In 1991, he convincingly won Russian presidential elections.
Yeltsin valiantly led the Russian Parliament and the throng of citizens who stood against the Russian tanks of the August 1991 communist hardliner coup. As the coup failed, Yeltsin sidelined Michael Gorbachev and managed the divorce of the Soviet Union member republics, which was finalized in December 1991. Shortly thereafter, on the 1991 Christmas Day, the Soviet Union expired.
The new state that Yeltsin led, the Russian Federation, faced empty coffers, pillaged by communists, no working institutions, and run-away inflation. Communists and their nationalist allies wanted revenge. The country was in turmoil.
By firing his leading economic reformer Yegor Gaidar in December 1992 and appointing the former gas minister Victor Chernomyrdin as his Prime Minister, Yeltsin slowed down the pace of reforms and allowed corruption to flourish. Unlike Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and the Baltic states, Russian reforms were piecemeal and lacked a serious legislative base, which had to be completed later.
Russia also lacked a constitution, while the anti-reform Supreme Soviet threatened to impeach Yeltsin and was trying to amass power. In spring 2003 Yeltsin took his political reform plan to the popular referendum, which he won, and later ordered the Supreme Soviet to be disbanded. He sent troops to prevent the legislature from gathering. The Supreme Soviet and its supporters have attempted an armed insurrection. Yeltsin’s power was hanging by the thread for the second time in two years.
Having put down the insurrection, Yeltsin, nevertheless, failed to disband the communist party or purge the system of its supporters. Unlike Solidarity leaders in Poland, Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic, and Baltic anti-communists, Yeltsin was a part and parcel of the old system, and did not and could not fill the government with anti-communists, who, in Russia, also lacked any administrative or security experience.
Yeltsin failed to see through the legal proceedings against the communist party; failed to purge security services (which would be crucial for the future); and launched a war against separatist Chechnya, which would play a key role in Russia’s slide back to authoritarianism. He never managed to put together an effective economic reform package, and the brief recovery in 1996-1997 ended with a disastrous financial crisis of August 1998, which brought the hard-liner Yevgeny Primakov to Prime Minister’s chair and set the reformers back even further.
Nevertheless, Yeltsin has not used power to suppress opposition parties; and allowed freedom of the media to an unprecedented degree. After Primakov was fired, he tried the former Interior Minister Sergey Stepashin for a brief tenure as Prime Minister, only to be replaced by a loyal and tough head of the secret police, the Federal Security Service. The name of the new prime minister, appointed in summer of 1999, was Vladimir Putin.
By then, Yeltsin’s health has deteriorated. He had suffered a couple of heart attacks – both connected to his political battles, the first one was in 1988, when he was the first man to oppose the Soviet Politburo and come out on top. The second attack happened during the touch-and-go presidential election campaign on 1996, where he closed the gap from the low single digit support in February to winning the elections in summer. In the fall of 1996 Yeltsin underwent a quintuple bypass. The media and acquaintances have reported serious problems with alcohol abuse.
Yeltsin has left Russia weak but relatively free. The country had a diffuse power structure, which included the presidency, the legislative branch, elected regional governors, and outspoken media. The middle class has started to grow; freedom of religion and movement were enshrined.
Today, Russia is much wealthier, steadily growing at about 7 percent annually since 2000. It has a flat income tax of 13 percent and corporate income tax of 24 percent. Foreign investment is flowing in at unprecedented rate, and capital flight all but stopped..
Yeltsin, however, failed to secure his most precious gain – freedom – beyond his presidency. The Constitution he rammed through in late 1993 granted unprecedented powers to the President. The post-Yeltsin centralization of power includes appointment of governors; a pliant parliament; state control of all TV channels and of most radio and print media; and the breaking of oligarchs’ political power.
Mass demonstrations which took place under Gorbachev and Yeltsin today are inconceivable, as the recent March of Dissenters, when 9,000 heavily armed riot police have broken a 2,000-strong peaceful demonstration. While Yeltsin failed to leave behind a functioning rule of law system, his successors dismantled the little that was left.
If Russia evolves towards a model of Western democracy, Yeltsin will be remembered as its founding father. Like Gorbachev, he will be credited primarily as the destroyer of the horrendous Soviet legacy. If, however, Russia will freeze in authoritarianism, Yeltsin's legacy there will remain that of a weak and erratic ruler.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the author of Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis (1998).