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

Modern Russia is a chaotic and confusing place, full of contradictory
trends and unexpected twists and turns. Like a spaceship landing on
an alien planet, the immediate--and natural--response of Western
politicians on arrival in Moscow is to cry, "Take me to your leader."
And there, sitting in the dazzlingly refurbished Kremlin, is a man
well suited to the part. However, far from leading his country to the
tranquil pastures of "market democracy", Yeltsin has launched Russia
on a permanent revolution. Paradoxically, he has become an immovable
fixture by casting himself as the leader of the transition, the only
man who can save Russia from its communist past. He is the ultimate
interim leader--a Potemkin president propped up in office by rival
cliques who cannot agree on where to take the country, but who use
Yeltsin's authority to wield power while they can, for ends fair or
foul. Yeltsin is now hoist with his own petard: He initially
consolidated his power by playing off one clique against another, but
now he is the virtual prisoner of warring clans, shuttled from one
sanitarium to another as they vie for the spoils of the ongoing
privatization of state assets. At times, as when Yeltsin denounces
his own government, or disco dances for the cameras, it resembles a
comic opera, but the potential for tragedy is never far away.

Yeltsin's peccadilloes (being drunk during a state visit, or conducting an orchestra) may be amusing to Westerners, reassured to see a thigh-slapping, hard-drinking, bear-hugging Russian in the Kremlin. But they are less reassuring to Russians, who recall that this is the man who sent the army into Chechnya and presides over a government unable to pay its pensioners and teachers. And Yeltsin is still the person in charge of the country's nuclear arsenal, a fact of which we were reminded by his spontaneous comment at the signing of the NATO treaty in Paris this May, to the effect that all Russian warheads would be "removed." (Spokesmen struggled to explain that what he really meant was that they would be retargeted - but they had already been retargeted.)

The only thing that will remove Yeltsin from office is his mortality. By May 1997 his public support had fallen back to where it was eighteen months earlier - 8 percent.But as in the Brezhnev era, it is not public opinion that matters but the President's medical reports. International financial markets are even more Yeltsinocentric than Western political leaders: The merest hint of medical trouble causes the markets to panic. Yeltsin was out of action ("working on documents", as his press releases put it) for eight of the twelve months following his re-election, due to quintuple heart by-pass surgery and subsequent bouts with pneumonia. On July 7, 1997, he again left the Kremlin, this time for a two month vacation. When he is out of town Victor Chernomyrdin minds the shop, and the Russian government effectively goes into hibernation until the Boss resurfaces and starts firing off decrees.

Assuming that Yeltsin stays alive, he will have to leave office in the year 2000, since the constitution limits him to two terms. There was talk of finding a way to enable him to serve a third term, but his announcement of September 1 that he would step down when his present term ends has put an end to such talk, at least for now. In any event, Yeltsin is mortal, and sooner or later he must be replaced. Contemplation of that eventuality underscores the fragility of the political order that Yeltsin has built. It is unclear who could step into Yeltsin's shoes; indeed, it is hard to imagine any other individual being able to fill the role he has created for himself. Yeltsin has achieved a feat of political levitation - sustaining himself in power despite the lack of visible support from any organized social groups or even business elites. No other Russian political leader could pull off such a performance, since Yeltsin and Yeltsin alone can claim to have delivered Russia from communism. One potential crown prince after another has been picked up, used, discredited, and discarded.(19) The current chosen son, Boris Nemtsov, will likely suffer a similar fate. And then we will be back exactly to where we were in 1996, staring at the possible victory of a Communist candidate, even though this candidate is supported by only one-quarter of the population, because the divide-and-decree methodology of Yeltsinocracy has prevented the formation of a healthy political party representing the forces of Russia's centrist majority.

Where does this leave Russia? Despite the gloomy morass that Russian politics has become, the prospect of a messy political crisis following Yeltsin's demise should not be cause for excessive alarm. If the center of gravity in Russia's political and economic system has indeed shifted decisively to the regions, then the feuding inside the Moscow beltway should not spill over into a social cataclysm, and Russian democracy may emerge from such a crisis stronger than before. This guarded optimism is based on the absence of significant, organized challenges to market democracy. The military is in no condition to mount a coup, the communist opposition is not able to organize a revolution, and the regional bosses, who mostly rule with a tight hand, do not want to disrupt the status quo. Scary scenarios of violent social conflict, civil war, and military coups are implausible.

It is not an abrupt collapse that threatens Russia, but the steady sapping of its human resources as poverty and despair take their toll, while much of its elite flees oversees. It is not only hard cash that is leaving Russia (at the rate of about $15 billion a year); the country is also losing its human capital. It is striking, for example, that not only Yeltsin's grandson, but also the son of Chubais and the daughter of Yeltsin's top aide Valentin Yumashev are attending the exclusive British public school Mill field (fees $25,000 a year). What signal does this send to the Russian people about the leaders' confidence in their country's future (let alone its education system)? Russia urgently needs visionary - but effective - national leadership to put its economic and political institutions on a sound footing, something that Yeltsin's reformers have tried, but thus far failed, to achieve.

Russians like to point out that they are a patient and tough people, who have seen their society disintegrate more than once during this century (in 1905, 1917, 1932, 1937, and 1941). Each time, Russia recovered. Russians are now waiting, some calmly, some desperately, for such a renaissance to occur once more - and eventually it will. This time around, however, it is highly unlikely that Russia will re-emerge as a military superpower. For once, it may well be a normal country.

Peter Rutland is associate professor of government at Wesleyan University.

Essay Types: Essay