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Boris Yeltsin's Controversial Legacy

The recent death of Boris Yeltsin drew varied and contradictory assessments of his tenure as the first president of the Russian Republic after the break-up of the Soviet Union. While western leaders uniformly extolled him as a democrat, in his own country many remembered his mistakes.

Boris Yeltsin’s Controversial Legacy

The recent death of Boris Yeltsin drew varied and contradictory assessments of his tenure as the first president of the Russian Republic after the break-up of the Soviet Union. While western leaders uniformly extolled him as a democrat, in his own country

many remembered his mistakes.


oris Yeltsin, the first president of the independent Russian Republic died at the age of 76 years on April 24, 2007 due to heart failure. The president of Russia Vladimir Putin whom Yeltsin chose as his successor on December 31, 1999 was generous in paying tribute to the former president. He said that under Yeltsin “a new era began and a new democratic Russia was born”. He also declared April 25, 2007 as the day of mourning for the departed leader who was buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetry, where writer Anton Chekhov and former Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev are also buried. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the former USSR who attended the funeral was more objective and restrained when he stated “… Yeltsin leaves behind him great deeds to the benefit of his country and serious mistakes”. In contrast, several leaders of western countries including the former president of the US George Bush Sr, Bill Clinton and others paid rich tributes to Yeltsin for his contribution of bringing democracy and freedom to the Russians and for ending the cold war era. Many western analysts and leaders including John Major of the UK praised Yeltsin as a revolutionary, a reformer and a democratic leader. The western countries had reason to be grateful to Yeltsin for contributing to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and for ending the hold of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

There was mixed response in the Russian media to Yeltsin’s death. For instance, Moscow’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported that Yeltsin gave Russians new life and opportunities. But at the same time it criticised him for his blunders. A report by the RIA Novosti was candid in stating that Yeltsin was responsible for the emergence of oligarchs and that his privatisation policy did not benefit the country but brought fortunes for a few Kremlin-connected businessmen. Moskovsky Komsomolets wrote that Russia can forgive Yeltsin for his drinking but his privatisation process and war

Economic and Political Weekly May 19, 2007

in Chechnya ruined his reputation. Kommersant, which is generally critical of the Russian government and its policies has been sceptical of Yeltsin’s choice of successor stating that “…return to the past is possible”.

Some analysts have described Yeltsin as a democrat, courageous, brave, a revolutionary leader, who brought freedom to his people and ended the cold war era. But on the other hand, there are critics who have called him an opportunist, impulsive, erratic and a leader lacking a vision for his country. Thus Yeltsin who was in office as the president of the Russian Republic from 1991 to 1999 has left a contradictory legacy and in the context of Russian history he has been both an anomaly and atypical leader.

The Rise

Yeltsin was admired for his courageous act in dealing with the coup by a section of communist leaders in August 1991 against the Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. Yeltsin stood on the tank in the Red Square in Moscow mobilising a section of the army and his ardent supporters, staring down those involved in the coup. The coup failed and Yeltsin’s popularity shot up both at home and abroad. But the same Yeltsin was responsible for resorting to firing on the unarmed and elected body of the Russian Parliament in 1993, which was a shocking and shameful incident.

Those who argue that Yeltsin was an opportunist point out that it was the president of the former USSR Mikhail Gorbachev who brought Yeltsin from the Siberian oblast of Sverdlovsk to Moscow in 1985 and also inducted him into the politburo the most powerful organ of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to strengthen the party and the country. But Yeltsin took this opportunity to enhance his own image and political status in the country, which later helped him to become the first president of the independent Russian Republic in 1991. Similarly, as there was growing dissent in the Baltic Republics against the centre, a delegation from the Estonian Republic visited Moscow on August 24, 1991 and approached Yeltsin. Though he was only the president of the Russian Republic, he signed a document recognising the independence of Estonia. Officially it was only the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and president of the USSR Gorbachev who had the authority to sign such a document of independence. Ultimately Gorbachev recognised independence on September 6, 1991. In fact even the US re-recognised the independence of the Baltic Republics only in September 1991. This is significant because it shows that Yeltsin did not adhere to legal norms. Moreover, he later took the opportunity of the independence of the Baltic Republics from the Soviet Union to convene the meeting of the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussia to declare their independence from the Soviet Union, which shocked the world as it virtually amounted to and precipitated the break-up of the USSR.

In the western countries Yeltsin has been hailed as a democrat and a reformer. But many Russian analysts do not subscribe to this assessment because of his several undemocratic actions. According to Russian analyst Boris Nikolaevich, Yeltsin rewrote the constitution of the country to suit his own interest and did not follow the due process of law. Similarly, he was impulsive in taking the hasty decision of starting the first Chechen war in 1994, which was virtually lost. Hence analysts both in Russia and in the west said that often Yeltsin was ruthless and behaved not like a true democrat but like a czar. It is pointed out that in the early period of his presidency, Yeltsin tried to follow the policy of decentralisation of power in the true spirit of democracy. However, under the prevailing conditions in Russia only some resource-rich regions and autonomous republics were benefited. Similarly, Yeltsin promoted freedom of press and speech, which led to the growth of many independent papers and TV channels. But there are disagreements with this assessment. For instance, it is argued that the seeds of individual freedom were already sown by Gorbachev through his policy of Perestroika and Glasnost and that Yeltsin only pursued it.

Yeltsin was re-elected as the president of Russia in 1996, when he defeated his rival from the Communist Party. The western analysts thus observed that he was a truly democratically elected leader. Russian analysts give a different interpretation. According to some of them, at that time a general opinion was created by vested groups in the country that only Yeltsin’s leadership alone would help Russia to bail out and prevent the return of the communists and to the Soviet past. They also pointed out that the 1996 election was not totally fair since financial groups used their money power to ensure Yeltsin’s victory for their own benefit. In fact, power got concentrated in Kremlin and in the hands of a few individuals such as Berezovsky and Gussinsky who were close to him. Moreover, Yeltsin is also being criticised because while he dismantled former institutions he failed to create new ones. He was impulsive and often inconsistent in his policies, which affected his power and authority. Similarly, Yeltsin also changed prime ministers very often possibly to cover up his own failures in domestic policies and partly to prevent a competitor from appearing on the scene.

Big Disasters, Small Triumphs

Yeltsin’s addiction to alcohol often affected his functioning as the head of the nation. As a result of this on several occasions he was so drunk that he could not show up for meetings with international leaders. Often he was not able to express himself clearly when he appeared on the TV, which damaged his status and reputation both at home and abroad. Some western scholars point out that Yeltsin was the only Russian leader who gave up power voluntarily in a true democratic spirit. But the fact is that he was virtually incapable of discharging his functions and hence handed over the reins of the country to his protégé Vladimir Putin.

Many western analysts have appreciated Yeltsin for undertaking the policy of economic liberalisation and building a market economy after the Soviet break-up. Several international financial institutions including the World Bank and the IMF also extended support for his policies. But according to many Russian experts, Yeltsin miserably failed in his economic policies since he was in a great hurry to bring about transition from the centralised communist economy to capitalist-oriented economy when the situation was not conducive. This is evident in the case of his policy of “Shock Therapy” under which prices were liberalised overnight and state property was privatised leading to economic crisis of unprecedented magnitude during the years 1992 to 1995. His hasty economic policy decisions led to hyperinflation, sharp decline in the gross domestic product and per capita income, large-scale unemployment and so on. The policy of privatisation of state assets

Economic and Political Weekly May 19, 2007 even before their valuation was a disaster since it was exploited by a small section of young industrial managers and party apparatchiks who amassed wealth at the cost of a large section of the society including workers. In a short period of five to six years Russian society was polarised into the super rich and the very poor. A class of super rich known as “New Russians”, oligarchs and financial mafia groups was created, millionaires who were driving on the Moscow streets in the latest imported cars while a large section of society was impoverished, begging or selling cigarettes and their pets on the streets of Moscow for survival. According to a Russian economist while the young generation of Russia benefited slightly from Yeltsin’s economic policies, the older generation, which had sacrificed their life with the hope of building a new society was driven to destitution and poverty losing their life savings overnight. The reaction of common citizens, therefore, was evident in Yeltsin’s popularity rate plummeting to 3 per cent when he relinquished his office at the end of 1999. Yeltsin’s failures in economic and social policies led to sharp increase in crime, corruption, prostitution and the mortality rate.

In the matter of foreign policy Yeltsin was oriented more towards the west and he even neglected the east (at least in the initial years) including the central Asian countries, China and India. Only later was the former prime minister Yevgenii Primakov able to correct this imbalance. Yeltsin was possibly under the impression that with the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia under his leadership would be immediately embraced by the west as an equal partner. But according to a Russian analyst, Yeltsin became a puppet in the hands of the west and he did as he was told in return for the financial handout. The leading western countries and international financial institutions did support Yeltsin’s Russia with liberal financial assistance, but it did not enjoy equal status.

Yeltsin changed world history at the end of the 20th century. He was admired by the west and disliked by a majority of his own countrymen. Yeltsin’s failures far outweighed his achievements as he sought power without the requisite vision and purpose and perhaps was the wrong man at the wrong time for Russia.



Economic and Political Weekly May 19, 2007

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