Reassessing Boris Yeltsin

Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first popularly elected president but unabashed admirer of Tsar Peter the Great, comes to Washington today to visit his most exalted enthusiast. President Bill Clinton will most likely once again endorse Yeltsin's claim to be the indispensable father of a "new, democratic and civilized Russia."

However, not many influential Russians see Yeltsin that way any longer. The ultranationalists and Communists still, of course, consider him a criminal agent of Western powers who first plotted the breakup of the Soviet Union and now are plundering Russia's economy. But more significant for Americans, ever fewer Russian democrats still see Yeltsin as one of their own. Most have come to regard him as an instinctively authoritarian leader who has enabled the former Soviet ruling class to preserve its position in post-Communist Russia, indeed to enrich and legalize itself under the cover of "privatization." Yeltsin's legacy will not be the promised transition to a democratic, free-market system, or even a popular consensus for moving in that direction, but a bitterly divided nation.

Three policies have characterized Yeltsin's use of power and shaped Russia today. In December 1991, his sudden and surreptitious abolition of the Soviet Union shattered an exceptionally integrated economy while depriving 150 million Russians of the only nationhood they had known. In 1992, his attempt to impose a Western-style market economy on Russia by "shock therapy" took away the life savings of most of them. Largely as a result, while perhaps 5 to 8 percent of Russians have profited fabulously, industrial production has plummeted by 40 to 50 percent and at least half the country now lives in poverty or on the brink of it. His third decision, the unlawful and tank-backed overthrow of an elected parliament and entire constitutional order in 1993, dealt a heavy blow to the expectations for democracy that had been raised in the late 1980s.

The political fallout from those excessive policies, all of them enthusiastically supported by the U.S. government, was predictable. A majority of Russians no longer believe in democratic, free-market or other Western-sponsored solutions; now look back on the breakup of the Soviet Union as a tragic mistake or a conspiracy; and want some kind of regrouping of former Soviet republics. Russians may have lived through hard times before, but never in the midst of such ostentatious official corruption, mafia extortion and dubiously gained private wealth. Yeltsin's Russia has become a dangerously polarized nation. Indeed, polarization is generating a still worse specter. Millions of ordinary citizens loathe what has happened to their nation and ask who "betrayed" them. Understandably, the ruling elite has begun to fear its own people.

Three developments are especially revealing. Having already broken his promise to hold a presidential election in 1994, Yeltsin has begun looking for ways to cancel the one now scheduled for 1996. Publicly, his men are offering a deal that would postpone both the presidential and State Duma elections, but privately they are exploring "harder" variants as well. One possibility is using the current fighting in Chechnya as a pretext for giving Yeltsin "extraordinary" powers throughout Russia.

Second, credible reports suggest Yeltsin is suppressing evidence that the new authoritarian constitution he put to the country last December -- the Clinton administration called it a "great democratic breakthrough" -- did not actually get the required 50 percent of eligible votes. If true, everything Yeltsin has done as president in 1994 also has been unlawful.

The third development would similarly be a major scandal in a truly democratic country. The popular General Alexander Lebed recently called for a new political leadership in Russia. When the president's few remaining military loyalists tried to remove Lebed from his command, the general hinted he might inspire a mutiny or launch a personal bid for the leadership. Yeltsin immediately retreated, praising Lebed's "great role" in keeping things "under control."

All three episodes reflect a growing dread of powerlessness and retribution in the Yeltsin camp. No Russian or Soviet leader has ever left office voluntarily. It is easy to understand why Yeltsin may not want to be the first. Having ruled mostly by decree, often in open defiance of parliaments, constitutions and laws; having set the precedent of a political trial against the Communist party in 1992 and then used tanks to arrest his own former allies last year; and having tolerated financial scams that victimized millions of small investors while embracing high-level associates widely suspected of corruption, a powerless Yeltsin might become the target of any vengeful politics that ensued.

Alarmed and divided, Yeltsin's inner circle is giving him conflicting advice. One faction is urging an early presidential election before the economic crisis gets even worse and before the opposition finds a candidate who can at least equal Yeltsin's lowly ratings in the polls. The other group wants him to shed all such remnants of democratic "romanticism" and become a fully authoritarian leader -- a "Russian Pinochet."

Some Russian analysts doubt that anyone involved in the decisions to abolish the Soviet Union, launch shock therapy or assault the parliament could be re-elected. If that analysis is correct, truly democratic elections would oust most Yeltsinites from power.

The tempting Pinochet solution may be even riskier. Unlike in Chile, where that general ruled for seventeen years, Russia's emerging capitalist class is still too small to support such a regime and few army officers could be counted on to do Yeltsin's bidding: The military would more likely turn to its own pretenders. Either way, Russia's historic experiment with democracy would be over.

Stephen F. Cohen is a professor of politics and Russian studies at Princeton University. This comment, which was adapted from an article that will appear in a forthcoming issue of The Nation, was contributed to The Moscow Times.