Academic journal article Policy Review

From Yeltsin to Putin

Academic journal article Policy Review

From Yeltsin to Putin

Article excerpt

Milestones on an Unfinished Journey

BORIS YELTSIN'S PASSING FROM the world scene demonstrates once again how one man can change history. If not for Yeltsin, Russia today might still be ruled by the Soviet Communist Party, either in reformist or Stalinist incarnation. But Yeltsin only started the long and still unfinished business of reforming Russia. He has left much of the job to his hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin, the steely-eyed former intelligence officer and ex-head of the Russian secret police who only a year ago was a complete unknown. It is now up to Putin to tackle the future of Russia and its centuries-old problem of integration into the West.

As the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian reform-oriented elites led by Yeltsin attempted a political modernization that included the wholesale import of Western-style political machinery. The trappings of democracy installed in Russia included participatory elections, the creation of an office of the president, and the adoption of a constitution influenced by pre-revolutionary Russian political practice, the French Fifth Republic, and the United States. But as has been true since the time of Peter the Great, when Western practices are planted in Russian soil, they acquire uniquely Russian characteristics. Putin's presidency will inevitably be evaluated in the light of the successes (or failures) of the political and economic reforms started under Yeltsin and Gorbachev.

Putin's March 26, 2000 presidential bid wasn't quite a formally uncontested election of the kind that was a hallmark of the Soviet era, but it still presents a peculiarly Russian phenomenon -- the election of a monarch. The wildly popular political novice Putin ran without a strong opponent, and at this writing looked to face no serious obstacles on his way to the presidency. After a "dirty tricks" campaign aimed against them, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow's Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, both of whom appeared formidable only a year ago, opted not to enter the contest. The consensus in Moscow is that the young, ambitious, and focused Putin will be very much a hands-on leader, inheriting the legacy of the impetuous and autocratic Yeltsin.

Sorting out Yeltsin's past role and Putin's future rule is an important challenge for Western policy experts and politicians. It is also important to understand how Russia is really ruled, and not to be misled by those familiar Western terms: elections, parliament, president. We must see Russia for what it is -- a huge country that has been stuck in what the Russians call "catchup modernization" for the past 300 years, but does not really consider itself to be entirely a part of the West. As in the past, Russia today is ruled by elites who are willing to acquire Western goods and concepts, but do not fully identify with the West and often are envious of it. The world's ability to live with and next to Russia now hangs in the hands of Putin.

Yeltsin's ambiguous place in history

LIKE MANY RUSSIAN rulers before him, Yeltsin started out a reformer and wound up a retrograde. While he earlier defied the communist putschists, liberated prices, and launched a massive privatization, he later ended up presiding over the economic crash of August 1998 and the destruction of Chechnya. His resignation on the eve of New Year's 2000 concluded an era in Russian politics that began with Mikhail Gorbachev's ascent to power in 1985.

This was the era of dismantling communism, the centrally planned economy, and the Soviet multinational empire. By the time Yeltsin assumed office, Gorbachev had pulled most Soviet forces out of the external empire and had refrained from interfering when democrats toppled the communist governments in Eastern and Central Europe. In fact, Gorbachev reportedly encouraged the removal of the hard-line leadership of East Germany, led by Erich Honecker, and he had no kind words for the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu upon his demise. …

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