Yeltsin: the Problem, Not the Solution

Yeltsin: the Problem, Not the Solution

Mini Teaser: Too much of Western energy, resources, and political capital has been sunk into schemes whose primary goal is propping up Yeltsin's regime, while not listening to what Russians themselves want and need.

by Author(s): Peter Rutland

The dead man grasps the living. The corpse of the old world is
decomposing among us, poisoning everything alive. That corpse stinks!
--V.I. Lenin

It may be autumn, but metaphorically it seems to be springtime in
Russia once again. Boris Yeltsin is back, in fighting form, after an
eight month absence due to heart surgery and subsequent pneumonia. He
has given a free hand to Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov, who were
installed in March as first deputy prime ministers with a mandate to
revive market reform. These two men are the sort of politicians
Western observers like to see at the helm in Moscow--young,
forty-something technocrats who are healthy, telegenic, and fluent
both in English and in the language of IMF stabilization programs. It
is 1992 all over again: what some Russian commentators are calling
"the second liberal revolution." International markets are
enthusiastic, and money is pouring into Russian shares and bonds at
the rate of $1.5 billion a month. The Moscow stock exchange has risen
150 percent since the beginning of the year.

It may, however, be a little premature to sink one's life savings
into Novgorod municipal bonds. Western attitudes toward Russia over
the past decade have oscillated between brief interludes of elation
and dire predictions of chaos and doom. The heady optimism of 1992
was followed by the anxiety of 1993 (the shelling of the parliament)
and the fears of 1994 (the war over Chechnya). The market transition
in Russia has also been accompanied by increased poverty, rising
death rates, and an explosion of violent crime. Contract killings in
Moscow alone are running at three hundred a year. Anyone lulled into
a state of euphoria by reading an IMF or World Bank report on
Russia's imminent economic boom would be well advised to see the
recent movie, The Saint, in which Val Kilmer is chased across Moscow
by a menagerie of gangsters who have bought off the city's police and
army units and whose boss is running for president. Which is the real
Russia--the Russia of sleek bankers, oil millionaires, and
Weimar-style cabarets; or the Russia of starving babushkas, reeling
drunks, and suicidal soldiers? For once, Hollywood may have stumbled
upon a more accurate rendition of Russia's highly contradictory
social reality than that reflected in the bullish projections of
financial markets.

Hollywood aside, there are some trends in contemporary Russia that
should be applauded. There is no sign that the average Russian--even
one suffering from wage or pension arrears--thinks that a return to
the authoritarian Soviet past is either feasible or desirable. A
basic acceptance of the institutions of democracy and a market
economy has taken root both among the ruling elite and the population
at large. For all its problems, Russia does not currently feel like a
society on the brink of social catastrophe. Market democracy is weak,
but the forces that would topple it are weaker still. Radical
communists find it hard to mobilize more than a few thousand people
on the streets, and for all the talk of "Weimar Russia", the
neo-fascist movements only have a few hundred serious followers. The
historical record suggests that the major threat to developing
democracies is a military coup, but Russian generals seem more
interested in building dachas (and subsequently keeping themselves
out of jail) than repeating the sorry experiences of August 1991 and
October 1993--when the army was dragged into politics by ambitious or
fearful civilian leaders. As one commentator put it, "The army is as
defenseless in the face of democracy as it was in the face of the
totalitarian state. When the hard times came the people with weapons
accepted their poverty more meekly than the teachers with their chalk
or the miners with their picks."

Both positive and negative trends in Russia are much obscured by the
West's fixation on the personality and power of Boris Yeltsin. Too
much of Western energy, resources, and political capital has been
sunk into schemes whose primary goal is propping up Yeltsin's regime,
while far too little attention has been devoted to listening to what
Russians themselves want and need. Trends in Russia since 1991 have
been highly contradictory. In some respects the country has changed
faster than one would have expected, in other respects more slowly.
Unfortunately, journalists dislike ambiguity, and in the public mind
the fate of Russia seems to have been irrevocably tied to the rise
and fall of Yeltsin's fortunes.

This means, in turn, that some important trends of the past six
years, such as the ebbing of power away from Moscow to the provinces,
are seen as negative rather than positive developments, since they
undermine Yeltsin's power and authority. But the federalization of
Russia is arguably a healthy political development, since it lessens
the likelihood of unpredictable and potentially disruptive policy
switches at the national level. Moscow now has to look over its
shoulder at how the leaders of Russia's eighty-nine regions will
react. The autonomy of regional governors was strengthened by the
round of elections that took place last fall (before which most of
them had been appointed directly by President Yeltsin). The enhanced
power of regional leaders compensates to some degree for the
pusillanimity of the legislative and judicial branches of government
at the national level. For many Western commentators, however, these
regional governors are seen as obstacles to the reformist drive that
has been launched by Yeltsin's rejuvenated government.

Essay Types: Essay