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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 22

Yeltsin and Putin in Retrospect

Saturday 19 May 2007, by S Nihal Singh

Between them, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin destroyed the Soviet Union, the former out of the noblest of motives and the latter for opportunistic reasons. The West sang paeans of praise first for Gorbachev for his glasnost and perestroika, and later for Yeltsin for delivering the coup de grace to the Soviet Union. There was no job left for President Gorbachev because he had lost his country.

Yet Yeltsin, who was laid to rest in the Novodevichy, together with the great poets and writers of the past, after an elaborate church service and the honours of a state funeral, was a “historic figure”, as the White House suggested. Both he and Gorbachev interacted with the West, particularly the United States, as none of their Communist predecessors did in the long decades of the Cold War. Astutely, Washington quickly abandoned Gorbachev, partly a romantic in seeking to change his country, for Yeltsin, their man. For well into his second term, Yeltsin had outsourced his country’s foreign policy to Washington, surely a unique development in modern history.

In death, the world saw many Yeltsins: the man on the tank defying the coup-makers, one who outlawed the Communist Party, the chief who ordered tankes to fire at his own Parliament building to bring hardliners to heel, the commander responsible for the disastrous military intervention in Chechnya, the man who made billionaires of apparatchiks in mass privatisations in the early Nineties. Yet he was a lovable man with human failings—a fondness for the bottle and one given to impulsive action.

Understandably, President Vladimir Putin embraced Yeltsin as a bridge between the old and the new—a great democrat and reformer of “great Russia”, as he called him. And Gorbachev, who had many scores to settle with him, eulogised Yeltsin for “many great deeds for the good of the country” while holding him responsible for “serious mistakes”. Yet history will deal with him more harshly than his peers.

What is one to say about the President of a suddenly diminished but still a major power letting his Cold War rival practically run the Russian economy, to disastrous effect? Or repeat the days of the robber barons of America manifold by letting those close to him or his family pick up state assets for a song and become billionaires overnight? Or let US experts take over the re-election campaign, Washington knowing full well how sick Yeltsin was, better to manipulate the levers of Russian power?

Gorbachev was at fault for not thinking through the consequences of his new glasnost and perestroika movement to inject life into the moribund Communist Party and structure. He thought he could reform the party to bring it into freer times. The abortive coup was a reminder that this was not possible, and Yeltsin grasped his moment to humiliate the last Soviet President and wrest control of the diminished but still vast Russian Federation by speeding up the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

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ONE of the wisest things Yeltsin did during his second term of prolonged absences in hospitals and sanatoria was to pick Putin as his successor, much as Washington and the West came to rail against the latter’s authoritarian tendencies. Putin brought stability and predictability to state affairs, realising that the vast country over which he presided, even without the Soviet and Czarist empires, needed a strong central authority, and as he curtailed media freedom and built up a strong king’s party, he reasserted Russia’s place in the world. High oil and gas prices helped Yeltsin to give a measure of prosperity to his people, millions of whom had suddenly become paupers through no fault of theirs.

The debate over the trade-off between stability and freedom in the Russian context will continue for a long time. It is well to remember the speed of developments. Yeltsin died a bare 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and how the scenario has been transformed since the last days of the Gorbachev presidency. Yeltsin, the man on the white charger, was transformed into an unsteady drunk, with newly minted billionaires helping run the Kremlin, thoroughly corrupting the Yeltsin household in the process. Yeltsin’s bargain with Putin was that he be granted immunity from prosecution.

In hindsight, it is plain to see how the Soviet predicament was exploited by a succession of US Presidents by running Russing affairs in league with Yeltsin and internationally to stymie the Russian Federation by taking NATO to its borders, contrary to the promises made. President Yeltsin helplessly watched the 11-week American-led bombing raids on fellow Slav Yugoslavia, and in the ultimate humiliation, even joined in contributing forces in overseeing Kosovo under American command. The once-proud Soviet Union was truly reduced to an American vassal state.

A backlash was inevitable. Once President Putin had taken hold of the political levers of power and showed the oligarchs the terms on which they could enjoy their illegitimate wealth, a semblance of law and order came to prevail. And sky-high prices of oil and gas filled state coffers enabling Putin to show his teeth. Putin sought to get even with the United States by his famous Munich declaration last February on American arrogance of power. More recently, the President, in his last State of the Union address, spoke bluntly about America’s provocation in planning to install elements of the American missile defence system in Poland and the Czech republic.

The New York Times has quoted Nikita Khrushc-hev’s great-granddaughter, in a Khrushcheva, now a resident of New York, as saying that President Putin was trying to anoint Yeltsin after his death as the “Czar of Russian democracy” to promote his own cause. The new Russian state needs its myths as much as any other country and the new marriage of the old in the shape of the Russian Orthodox Church and the pageantry of the Czars with power enshrined in the modern Kremlin is a potent mix. It is no coincidence that after the first heady days of his presidency, Boris Yeltsin became deeply unpopular at home even as his popularity soared in the chancelleries of the West. Russia is too big and too proud a state to remain subservient to American power for long.

(Courtesy : The Asian Age)

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