The Structure of Soviet History: Essays and Documents

By Ronald Grigor Suny | Go to book overview

CHAPTER NINE
THE SECOND RUSSIAN REPUBLIC
AND THE “NEAR ABROAD”

The end of the “Soviet experiment” was followed by another experiment, this time in building a democratic, capitalist society as quickly as possible. The central figure in this radical “transition to democracy” was the charismatic Boris Yeltsin, the courageous defender of democracy against the coup plotters in August 1991. But a mere two years later, Yeltsin deeply tarnished his image when he suppressed the parliament and sent troops to evict them from the White House. The bloody suppression of his political opponents in October 1993 marked a turning point in Russia's evolution. Although a more stable political structure was built around a powerful presidency, in the second half of the 1990s, Yeltsin himself appeared more and more to be a weak and confused leader, capricious and often indecisive, the victim of too much alcohol and poor health, and too tolerant of the widespread, metastasizing corruption in the country. The Russian invasions of the breakaway republic of Chechnya in December 1994, and again in the summer of 1999, confirmed the doubts of many that Yeltsin was incapable of dealing with the colossal problems facing a divided and dispirited Russia.

The twenty-five month period between the August 1991 coup and the September 1993 coup was marked by a vigorous, even vicious struggle for power within the ruling elites. That struggle was all the more intense because it would determine the future shape of Russia's political system and the distribution of property and wealth, as the old command economy was transformed into a capitalist system. A lesson some would draw from that period was that it was impossible in Russia both to impose shock therapy and maintain the existing constitutional order. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the generally pro-Yeltsin parliament agreed that emergency powers should be given to the president, who could then guide the ship of state to a more tranquil harbor. But the first year of Yeltsin's rule was marked, not by compromise and consensus, but by the launching of a radical economic program—Yegor Gaidar's policy of “shock therapy”—which further divided opinion and the leadership. Lurching toward a free market in 1992 only increased the misery of the population and threatened the positions of many industrial and political leaders. Russia was faced by a deepening crisis of political legitimation, with the population growing increasingly disillusioned by politics and its leaders. The parliament sought to become the dominant branch of government and resisted Yeltsin's efforts to create a stronger presidency.

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