War Stories

Blame Yeltsin

The historical roots of Vladimir Putin’s power play.

Boris Yeltsin

When I arrived in Moscow in the summer of 1992, as the Boston Globe’s new bureau chief, Boris Yeltsin’s reforms were in full swing; the Communist Party, already swept out of power, was on trial; and the new Duma looked like it might become a serious parliamentary power. So, I called on the head of Russia’s leading pro-democracy organization. Which cities, I asked him, should I go visit? Where were his movement’s chapters taking off, possibly even taking control?

He thought about my question silently for two minutes. (That’s a long time to think silently; try it.) Then he called one of his colleagues on the phone and talked—or, mainly, continued his silence—with him for another five minutes.

Right then, I knew that there were no such cities, no such chapters—that there was no democracy movement of any consequence in all Russia.

That moment came to mind when I read of Vladimir Putin’s ploy to extend his power beyond next year’s election—choosing not to run for a third consecutive term as president (which the Russian Constitution prohibits) but rather to run for parliament as the head of his wildly popular Russia Unity Party and thus very likely to re-emerge as prime minister.

It all goes back to Yeltsin—or, actually, to Peter the Great, Czar Alexander II, Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev. All the Russian leaders who mounted reforms or revolutions through the centuries did so from the top down. (The name of Lenin’s party, the Bolsheviks, which means “the majority,” was never an accurate description.)

Yeltsin came to power as an authentic rebel and a genuine advocate of Western-style reforms. But ultimately he remained a product of the Communist system through which he had risen. And he veered away from free markets and democracy quite early in his reign, once he realized their full implications.

He allowed and tolerated a startlingly free mass media (at least in his first few years as president), but he never associated with a political party, never encouraged the formation of independent unions or professional courts. In short, he never created the institutions of a democracy. The reforms were wholly linked to Boris Yeltsin and were thus easily reversed either by him or by some successor. This failure wasn’t an oversight on Yeltsin’s part; it was deliberate.

As early as July 1992, barely a half-year into his reign as president of post-Soviet Russia, Yeltsin began to issue decrees that greatly expanded his executive powers. The liberal newspaper Moskovski Novosti (Moscow News) ran a story, headlined “Boris Yeltsin’s Quiet Coup,” that condemned his measures as “one more step toward the establishment of a dictatorship.” Yuri Afanasiev, a prominent democratic activist and a key ally in the parliament, wrote in Rossiya (Russia) that Yeltsin was now “preoccupied exclusively with how to stay in power.”

These comments, which reflected a widespread disillusionment among democratic activists, were a bit overblown. Compared with the regimes of a few years earlier, compared even with Mikhail Gorbachev’s era of glasnost and perestroika, Yeltsin’s Russia was a haven of personal freedom—freedom of speech, freedom of mobility, freedom of trade. But it never made the leap to political democracy—which is something else entirely.

His economic reforms were also short-circuited. In August 1992, with Yeltsin’s assent, the Russian Central Bank bailed out the country’s large, state-owned factories to the tune of 1 trillion rubles (about $6.6 billion at the time). The move pushed the inflation rate to 70 percent per month. It rewarded the most inefficient industries. (In some cases, the raw resources they consumed were of greater value than the products they manufactured.) And it put an end to the radical free-market reforms being pushed by his young prime minister, Yegor Gaidar.

As a former party boss of a major industrial region, Yeltsin knew—in a way that the theorist Gaidar did not—that, in much of Russia, a factory was much more than a factory. It distributed the town’s food and medicine, hosted the local schools, and controlled the housing. To shut down the factory, for whatever market reasons, meant shutting down the town. Yeltsin did not go that far. At the end of the year, he let Gaidar go and appointed as the new prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, the longtime head of Gazprom, the state-run gas and oil conglomerate.

Finally, in October 1993, facing a revolt from embittered parliamentarians, Yeltsin dissolved the legislature; the rebels and many rowdy friends occupied the building. Yeltsin mobilized the army to shell the place, forcing surrender. Again, he had his reasons. The revolt was led by an assortment of Communist retreads, outright fascists, and simple hooligans.

(Naomi Klein’s depiction of the conflict as a clash between Chicago-style capitalists and honorable, fledgling democrats is ludicrous. The day before Yeltsin opened fire, I was one of many reporters who spent an eerie afternoon in the parliament building, talking with its armed, black-booted, and stinking-drunk occupiers. Believe me—and Klein should, since she quotes one of my Globe reports in describing the soldiers shelling the building the next morning—there were no democrats among that lot. Nor, by this time, was Yeltsin a Milton Friedmanite, if he had ever been.)

After “the events of October,” as Russians called the clash, Yeltsin boosted his powers still further. He suspended the constitution and, before long, placed limits on press freedoms. At first, the press barons and their reporters rationalized their politicization; this was a fight between the forces of Russia’s new freedoms and the forces for a return to the old Soviet ways; to their minds, they had to take sides. But they soon realized that authoritarian means lead, all too naturally, to an authoritarian end—especially in a country with such scant experience in democratic practices.

Yeltsin called a new parliamentary election in December, in the hopes of bolstering the reform parties. But Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s ultranationalist party won the plurality of votes, and the revivified Communist Party didn’t do badly, either. Yeltsin’s presidential powers remained secure (a referendum strengthened them further), but the Gaidar-era reforms were more explicitly abandoned.

So, by the time Putin was elected president in 2000, the vestiges of a democratic Russia had long vanished.

It’s worth recalling, given the present situation, how Putin became president. In August 1999, Yeltsin appointed him prime minister. In December, Yeltsin suddenly resigned. Under Russia’s constitution, the prime minister succeeds the president in such circumstances, so Putin rose to become acting president—giving him the presumptive lead in the election the following March.

Putin inherited the supreme presidential powers of Yeltsin’s constitution. If Putin does run for parliament and then becomes prime minister, he might, as some speculate, pull the strings from behind the scenes, like a puppeteer, while the president—who will no doubt be handpicked by Putin, just as Putin was handpicked by Yeltsin—only pretends to make the decisions.

That’s one scenario. There’s another one, though, which would reprise his earlier path to the top: His handpicked president resigns soon after the election, and, to the cheers of hundreds of thousands who throng Red Square as witnesses, Czar Vladimir once more ascends to the throne.