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

There is no doubt that Yeltsin's political skills saved Russia from
catastrophe in 1991. He saw that the old system was finished, and
quickly set about concentrating power in his own hands in order to
provide a credible alternative leadership and thereby stave off civil
war. However, having steered Russia through the collapse of the
Soviet Union, Yeltsin was reluctant to leave the helm, or to share
power with his former allies in the Russian legislature. In a
dramatic about-face, Yeltsin unleashed the army on the Supreme Soviet
in October 1993--the very parliament from which he had faced down the
August 1991 coup. December 1993 saw the adoption of a new
constitution that stripped the legislature of most of its power and
concentrated authority in the hands of the president. Raising the
specter of civil war proved handy again in 1996, since it provided
Yeltsin with a campaign theme that proved sufficient to beat off the
lackluster challenge from Communist Gennady Zyuganov in the
presidential election. Yeltsin's political style is clearly effective
when it comes to concentrating power in his own hands, but it is
incapable of generating effective policies to tackle the acute
domestic and international problems facing Russia.

The principle underlying Yeltsin's style of government is simple and
familiar: "L'état, c'est moi." Boris Nemtsov, the current trailblazer
for democracy in Russia, habitually refers to Yeltsin as the
"Czar-father", apparently without irony. Western leaders went along
with Yeltsin's consolidation of power for lack of an obvious
alternative, showing the same political foresight that brought us
such outstanding leaders as Shah Mohammed Reza and Mobutu Sese Seko.
Such "strong" leaders may be able to sustain political stability for
decades--but when they are toppled, they leave a society in ruins.

Western advisers who have been paid to promote democracy and the rule
of law have been strangely silent about the weak powers granted to
the Russian parliament. Their rationale seems to be the following: If
the Russian voters throw up a legislature full of communists,
nationalists, and other ne'er-do-wells, as they did in 1993 and 1995,
that is all the more reason to stick with Yeltsin. This attitude is
wrong on three counts. First, Russia will never develop an effective
parliament unless it becomes a source of real power, and is held
accountable to electors for its decisions. At the moment, the
parliamentary deputies have no incentive to behave responsibly, but
can sit back and blame Yeltsin for the country's ills. Second,
although the Russian legislature is indeed a sorry and fractious
institution, nobody ever said that parliamentarians are saints. On
the contrary, democracy is built on the assumption that one's rulers
are not perfect. (Is there any legislature on earth that generates
warm, protective feelings among the people who observe its antics?)
That is why there must be institutional checks and balances, and a
maximum of public visibility and accountability in the decision
making process. Third, the doomsayers exaggerate the grip of the
Red-Brown coalition on the parliament. Through both the 1993 and 1995
elections, the bloc of voters supporting broadly pro-reform
candidates stayed about the same--around 40 percent of the
electorate. Due to the vagaries of the proportional representation
system and the fractiousness of the democratic parties, the reformers
failed to capitalize on their solid base of public support. But there
was a moderate presence in the parliament, one that could have grown
over time had it been given a chance. Yeltsin himself did nothing to
promote the development of an effective democratic party, instead
refusing to join any party and pretending that the president should
be "above politics."

Many Russians initially went along with the concentration of power in
Yeltsin's hands, partly because they believed it more suited to
Russia's political culture, and partly because they misunderstood the
role of the president in the U.S. political system. Many Russians
(and East Europeans, too) believe that the president of the United
States is an all-powerful figure, and would be shocked to learn of
the important role played by Congress in domestic and foreign policy.

Above all, the reformers themselves justified their allegiance to
Yeltsin by arguing that the end justifies the means. They had no
illusions about the undemocratic nature of Yeltsin's regime, but
maintained that Russia was at a crucial crossroads. Someone had to
take responsibility for dismantling the remaining institutions of the
Soviet era, and for laying the foundations for a market economy and
civil society. Yeltsin at least understood the need for fundamental
change. He was willing to give his young reformers sufficient
autonomy to pursue radical policies that would be costly in the short
term but essential to Russia's long-term well-being. The implicit
bargain made by such reformers was subjected to an acid test by the
Chechen war. Only the most hardened pragmatists were willing to
continue supporting an administration that caused the death of some
40,000 civilians.

The problem with the reasoning of these pragmatists--a problem that
should be more clearly understood by survivors of the Soviet regime
than by anyone else--is that ends can never be separated from means.
Market reform imposed from above is likely to alienate the social
groups and bureaucratic agencies whose cooperation is essential to
the creation of effective social institutions. Democracy is precisely
about the priority of means over ends, since it rests on the belief
that agreement cannot be reached over ends unless a sound
deliberative process is in place. Yeltsin does not seek a dialogue
with society: he seeks to browbeat it into compliance with his
populist rhetoric.

The pragmatist approach also makes heroic assumptions about the
integrity and ability of the governing elite, and asks us to suspend
Lord Acton's dictum about the tendency of power to corrupt.
Corruption may be rife among top government officials, but even so it
is not the crucial problem. Ordinary Russians expect their leaders to
steal--it helps them rationalize their own efforts to cheat the
authorities. What matters, to paraphrase Deng Xiaoping, is not
whether the cat will go to heaven, but whether it can catch mice.
Unfortunately, the Russian state, even with the young reformers at
the helm, is doing a lousy job at catching mice.

Much of the government's economic policy is now being formulated by a
team of two dozen men in their thirties and forties, a team that
Gennady Zyuganov refers to as the "pedocrats" (meaning those
representing "rule by children"). The new vice president of the
national electricity company, for example, is twenty-nine year old
Boris Brevnov, who set up his own bank at age twenty-three. The
pedocrats' accession to power in March of this year represents a
miniature "cultural revolution"--a revolution that took place without
an election, without any pretense of asking the society if it wanted
another dose of liberal reforms. A lot of the new team's policy seems
to be based on IMF and World Bank briefing papers and occasional
readings of The Economist. Even assuming they are honest and capable,
the capacity of these young revolutionaries to design and implement
effective policies, in the face of the indifference or hostility of
other civil servants and key political and economic elites, must be
in grave doubt. Only the promotion of Nemtsov from the provinces
represents an exceptional development; for most of the past six
years, Yeltsin has been "endlessly reshuffling the same stale pack of
cards" in selecting his ministers, and as such the Nemtsov-Chubais
team remains an embattled minority.

There are of course plenty of critics prepared to argue that the
young reformers are not driven by altruism, but are trying to "become
the sole wielders, the monopoly-holders, of economic, financial,
informational, and political power in Russia." Either way, and
whether they succeed in the main or not, it suits Yeltsin to draft in
a fresh new governmental team every year or so: It is a straw for
optimists to cling to, and it ensures a supply of scapegoats when
things go wrong.

But "L'état, c'est moi" is an idea whose time has passed--about two
hundred years ago. There is only one political institution that has
proved itself capable of aggregating social interests in such a way
as to provide social peace and guarantee individual liberty while
promoting economic prosperity, and that is an elected legislature. It
is instructive to note that all the Central and East European
countries that have pursued successful reforms have strong, effective
parliaments. In contrast, it is hard to find a single country in
transition with an overly powerful presidency that has achieved
lasting economic recovery.

Yeltsin would have best served Russia by stepping down from power in
1993 or 1994 and passing on the baton of leadership to a new
generation. Instead, in the tradition of previous Russian rulers, he
doggedly clings to power. He even opted to run for a second term in
1996 despite the fact that his public support stood at a mere 8
percent in January of that year. Thanks to the massive and one-sided
media campaign waged on his behalf, and with Zyuganov as his
principal opponent, Yeltsin was able to turn the election into a
referendum on the communist past, knocking most of his would-be
rivals out of the race and defeating Zyuganov in the second round by
a comfortable 14 percent margin. One should not forget the effects of
the lavish distribution of pork from federal coffers in the run-up to
the election. As the joke goes, "How is a presidential election
organized? In three stages: first the campaign; then the voting; then
the rebuilding of the national economy." The President's media
manipulators were even able to hide from the public the fact that
Yeltsin suffered a heart attack just days before the second round of
the election. But Yeltsin's victory came at a price: the clock of
political change was turned back five years.

Essay Types: Essay