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

If Yeltsin had resigned in 1993, a new democratic leader such as
Grigory Yavlinsky might well have emerged triumphant--or perhaps a
Communist would have regained the presidency. Either way, the new
president would have had to adapt to the fundamental changes that had
already occurred in Russian society--or he would have been voted out
of office at the next election. Real institution-building, as opposed
to political posturing and clan warfare, would have proceeded apace.
Instead, here we are in 1997, facing three more years of Boris
Yeltsin, and with no clear picture of what will follow him. At least
a decade will have passed since the fall of communism before Russian
voters get to experience a "normal" election, in which voters choose
between competing governments, rather than take part in ritualistic
referendums on their past.

Political Style and Culture

Six years after his accession to power, Yeltsin's monocratic approach
to politics has clearly exhausted its usefulness. The features of
Yeltsinocracy are plain: He has devised, willy-nilly, an ingenious
and robust system of rule that enables the current political elite to
stay in power despite the abject failure of their policies on nearly
all fronts.

The country is ruled by decree, of which the President signs about
1,500 a year. Most of the major government programs of the past five
years have been carried out by presidential fiat, such as the 1995
cash privatization, which saw half a dozen leading oil companies
auctioned off at bargain prices to favored banks. Federal budget
spending is essentially carried out by decree. Last year, for the
first time, the budget was passed into law--but the government
ignored it, slashing certain spending categories at will because of a
shortfall in tax receipts. This year, having failed to get the Duma
to approve a revised budget plan in mid-year, the government
announced that it would cut spending by 20 percent even without Duma
authorization. In June Chubais expressed his displeasure with the
Duma's performance, which sounded rather strange, since in most
democracies it is the legislature that passes judgment on the
executive, not the other way around.

The problem with ruling a country by decree as opposed to law is that
there is no publicly accountable procedure governing their
adoption--all that matters is getting Yeltsin's signature at the
bottom. No one knows when a decree may be revoked, or replaced by
another decree. There is no requirement of an open debate on the
merits and defects of a decree, or oversight as to how it is carried
out. As a result many half-baked measures are hastily passed, only to
be withdrawn or abandoned after public outcry. (A striking example is
the tax reform introduced in August 1996 that proposed draconian new
controls on bank deposits and was quickly withdrawn after a hail of
criticism.) One is reminded of a saying from the last century: The
strictness of Russia's laws is exceeded only by the laxity of their

Even Yeltsin's administration cannot get around the fact that some
issues have to be encapsulated in law. Foreign investors, after all,
do not want to see their rights subject to the vagaries of decrees.
The Duma, painted into a corner as an "irreconcilable opposition",
retaliates in kind by failing to pass much-needed laws, such as a new
land code, a new tax code, and a law on production sharing in mineral

Many decrees are ignored, but some are implemented with great vigor.
Only those having close personal contact with the President can know
which are which. As in the court of Louis XIV, physical access to the
ruler is the key--hence the increasing personalization of Russian
politics, with access as the prize. Over the years access to Boris
Nikolaevich has been controlled by such diverse figures as his tennis
partners, his chief bodyguard, and most recently his youngest
daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, who became a member of his campaign team
last spring. In June of this year, just after the Duma recessed for
the summer, Yeltsin formally appointed Dyachenko as his official
adviser. She explained that her role is "to tell the truth to
Papa"--which, of course, begs the question of what his other advisers
have been telling him over the last few years.

Rule by decree produces badly conceived and badly implemented
policies. Yeltsin's way of dealing with that consequence is to fire
people. He is most at home banging his fist on the table and berating
his subordinates. Such a fate befell General Igor Rodionov, appointed
defense minister in August 1996 and ignominiously dismissed ten
months later after a humiliating dressing-down in front of television
cameras. Rodionov later explained that while in office he had found
it impossible to get a personal audience with Yeltsin, and that even
a secretly coded letter he wrote to the President was apparently not
delivered. Yeltsin's penchant for firing ministers means that it has
now become very difficult to persuade competent people to take on the
job. (Admittedly, the fact that a minister earns only about $1,000 a
month is not a great incentive either.) It is surreal to watch
Yeltsin surface every few months and profess surprise and outrage at
the incompetence of a government chosen and appointed by none other
than B.N. Yeltsin.

Another distinctive feature of Yeltsin's political style is the
careful manipulation of promotions and demotions to balance rival
cliques and prevent subordinates from accumulating too much power.
Yeltsin has used old-guard bureaucrats like Victor Chernomyrdin and
Oleg Soskovets to balance pro-reform radicals like Yegor Gaidar and
Anatoly Chubais. In a dramatic June 1996 showdown he ejected the
Soskovets clan, which controlled the metallurgy and defense
industries and backed the Chechen war. Yet at the same time he
bolstered the role of another hawk over Chechnya, the "strong man"
interior minister, General Anatoly Kulikov. Over the past six years
Yeltsin has strengthened the police and interior troops in order to
spread his bets and avoid dependence on the army, whose passivity in
1991 ensured his accession to power. While the army has been starved
of cash, the police have been well funded; there are now 50 percent
more police and interior troops than in Soviet days. Currently,
General Kulikov, a bitter opponent of market reform, is being held in
reserve to be deployed when necessary against ex-General Alexander
Lebed, or similar "patriotic" challengers.

Another common Yeltsin practice is to bring in figures from outside
who have some popular appeal, and then abandon them when the need has
passed. Ruslan Khasbulatov (former Duma chairman), Aleksander Rutskoi
(Yeltsin's vice president), and Lebed (briefly appointed to the
Security Council last year) each in turn played this role. Nemtsov is
the latest occupant of the crown prince's throne, and Yeltsin seems
to have genuine affection for the young ex-governor of Nizhny
Novgorod. But no one should be surprised to pick up the newspaper
tomorrow and find out that Nemtsov has been dismissed because he was
"too headstrong", or because he did not take care to pay the
babushkas' pensions. It is important to remember that with Yeltsin in
the Kremlin, as Andrei Traub has put it, "any government in Russia is
a temporary one."

Beneath the reformist bluster, Yeltsin has resurrected at the
national level a political system that mimics in several respects the
stagnated Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev. An incapacitated leader
is surrounded by all-powerful bureaucrats, regional leaders press for
more independence, and an apathetic public looks on in disgust. The
intelligentsia knows that something is badly wrong, but cannot see a
way out. In some ways, as former Yeltsin aide Pavel Voshchanov has
noted, the current situation is even worse than the Brezhnev era, in
that the countervailing structures of party committees have now gone,
and "administrative tyranny has almost become a way of life." And
unlike Brezhnev, Yeltsin frequently abdicates responsibility for
policy, tolerating violations (by regional leaders, by corrupt
officials) so long as they flatter him with professions of loyalty.

During the late Soviet era, citizens enjoyed a certain degree of
security and predictability in their lives. Now that too has gone,
with living standards shrinking and income differentials growing. As
the popular joke has it, "At least there was something to steal when
Brezhnev was in control." Yeltsin himself drew a parallel with the
past when he referred to the actions of his administration during the
months that he was sick as a "government of stagnation"--stagnation
(zastoi) being a code word for the Brezhnev era.

A Potemkin President

In Soviet times the West took for granted that political power was
concentrated in the Kremlin, and it was logical that Western policy
should then focus on sustaining the reformist aspirations of Mikhail
Gorbachev. That policy turned out to be good for the West, since it
led--serendipitously, perhaps--to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
U.S. policy toward Russia has once again become inextricably entwined
with the political fate of one man--Boris Yeltsin--but it no longer
makes sense to focus on one man, nor are the consequences likely to
be as benign.

Essay Types: Essay