Russian Roulette

American commentators think they know what is best for Russia, looking to the “democratic” days of Yeltsin. But they’re really just taking a gamble.

The election of Medvedev as the new president of Russia has led to a great deal of uncertainty in the United States. The crux of the problem, though, is not necessarily a realistic pessimism about Russia's policies but rather the negative way in which Russia is perceived by the American "cognoscenti." There is little room for hope that the U.S.-Russia relationship will improve anytime soon.

The emphasis in U.S. foreign-policy circles is on how best to punish Russia for both its bad record on democracy and for disagreements with United States on issues as varied as Iran and NATO enlargement. Unfortunately, this approach is doomed to failure; it is simply based on a number of flawed and dangerous assumptions.

The central flawed assumption is that the United States knows better than the Russian people what is best for their country. A telling example of this logic is found in a recent piece in Foreign Affairs by Michael McFaul and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss called the "Myth of Putin's Success." In the piece, the authors try to prove that under Putin, Russia squandered the opportunities created under Yeltsin; in essence, a fledging democratic regime: "Whatever the apparent gains of Russia under Putin, the gains would have been greater if democracy survived."

The problem with this argument is twofold. First, it is completely speculative. Nobody knows what would have happened if the Yeltsin regime had survived. Second, they incorrectly equate his reign with "democracy."

The political system established in Russia under Boris Yeltsin simply was not one of free and fair elections and an open market system. Instead, it was a manipulative and highly inefficient authoritarian regime, which, in the end, was rejected by the Russian population. There is both numerous and multifaceted proof to this effect. Let me enumerate just a few examples. If Russia was a democracy, how could Boris Yeltsin win the 1996 election starting from a position of popular support only numbering 6 percent? Yeltsin's victory had a strong whiff of manipulation and falsification. Yeltsin's opponent, the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, later filed nine applications to various courts implying the election results had been rigged. Predictably, he lost in every case.

Additionally, if Russia was a democracy, how could it have been ruled by a small and illegitimate circle known as the "Yeltsin family" during his second term-       a circle that included such unsavory but immensely powerful figures as Boris Berezovsky (who held positions in both government and business)? If Russia was a democracy, could its national wealth have been looted by a narrow group of future oligarchs with the complete consent of Boris Yeltsin and his team of "reformers"?

This corrupt capitalism that flourished in Yeltsin's Russia did not appear by chance. Brilliantly documented by the late American journalist Paul Khlebnikov in his book The Looting of Russia, he shows how the government rewarded people like Berezovsky and a narrow circle of those close to Yeltsin with immense amounts of wealth in exchange for their political support. The Yeltsin clan and pro-regime businessmen conserved power, but they ruled over a bankrupt state and an impoverished population. The young democrats were supposed to bring order to Russia, introduce a new legal system and give a green light to the market economy. Instead, they headed a regime that turned out to be one of the most corrupt in history. Was it this "vibrant" democracy that fills McFaul, Stoner-Weiss and the like with nostalgia for the Yeltsin years?

Khlebnikov is not the only author to argue the disastrous foibles of the Yelstin regime. Another realistic assessment of what happened to Russia in the 1990s is to be found in a book by Peter Redaway and Dmitri Glinsky, The Tragedy of Russian Reforms. They argue it is not by chance that the Yelstin-legacy "reformist" political parties were rejected by voters-not even making it to the Russian parliament in 2003. Their leaders, Egor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais, largely praised in the West, are deeply unpopular in Russia. This seems to be in large part because Yeltsin and his team deeply discredited the idea of democracy and, to a certain extent, the value of a market economy. Their successors could hardly then be expected to gain the support of the Russian populace.

Yet, how Yeltsin's reign is interpreted and remembered by Western analysts on both sides of the argument is, in the end, largely irrelevant. What really matters is how Russians understand this moment in their history. And a dominant majority thinks it was the worst time for their country in the twentieth century.

Those who argue that Yeltsin spirited in a time of reform, democracy and an environment ripe for a free-market economy need to be paid attention to. Not because their assumptions are correct, but rather because this flawed interpretation reflects the dominant approach of the U.S. political class to modern Russia. This approach is based, unfortunately, on ideological clichés, simplifications and evident distortions. Too often the U.S. debate about Russia is centered not on impartial analysis, but on a desire to make a certain point. Namely, that Putin's rule is negative for Russia, and certainly worse than under Yeltsin's tutelage. This stance may be appealing to a large part of the U.S. elite, but completely neglects the opinion of those who count most-Russians.