BORIS YELTSIN is a man who makes many people anxious. In the
United States where Bush administration officials continue to
express apprehension about where Mr. Yeltsin is taking Russia and
the Soviet Union.
The charismatic Russian leader's emergence at the head of the
democratic revolution sweeping the Soviet Union seemed at first to
calm fears that he was nothing more than a power-hungry demagogue.
But in the aftermath of the failed Aug. 19-21 coup, with talk of a
new Russian imperialism in the air here, criticism of Yeltsin picked
"Yeltsin is basically power hungry," the New York Times quoted
one American official saying. "He has no program of his own."
This perception of Yeltsin is not new. But it reveals a flawed
understanding of the events of the past year and half in the Soviet
Union. During that period, which began with Yeltsin's surprise
election as the chairman of the Supreme Soviet (parliament) of the
Russian Federation on May 29, 1990, the Russian leader has followed
a remarkably consistent course. He has pursued a coherent program
with determination and, at times, tactical wisdom.
The Soviet Union that is emerging from the wreckage of the
Communist state is almost precisely the one that Yeltsin has been
seeking. From his first day in office, Yeltsin has articulated a
view of the Soviet Union as a confederation, formed from the bottom
up by sovereign republics without a commanding center. He has sought
radical economic reform, a quick move to a market economy, and
democratization of political life. And he has called on Soviet
President Mikhail Gorbachev to oust the conservatives around him and
to form a coalition government with the democrats and republican
To understand the swirl of images of Boris Yeltsin - populist,
nationalist, demagogue - it is useful to listen to what the Siberian
politician has been saying.
From the moment Mr. Gorbachev failed to block his election,
Yeltsin advocated a new concept of the relationship between the
republics and the central government. He moved quickly, for example,
to declare the sovereignty of Russia, following the path taken by
the Baltic republics.
"We must hold out against the dictates of the center," Yeltsin
said in his first press conference on May 30 last year. "Our state,
country, union will be strong only through strong republics, and the
stronger and more independent the union republics are, the stronger
the center, the stronger our union will be, conversely."
After meeting with Gorbachev, Yeltsin spoke to the Russian
parliament on June 13, where he expanded his concept of a new union.
"Each state will determine its place along a path ranging ... from a
federation to a confederation," he said. "The level of independence
will be determined by each one of the sovereign states that will
belong to the union on the basis of a union treaty. In places it
will be a process differentiated between a federation and a
confederation.... It is a process that includes democratization ...
and indeed a reform of the state set-up of our union."
New economic plan
Gorbachev, speaking to the Congress earlier this week, described
the plan drawn up by himself and 10 republican leaders as a
"voluntary" union. "Let it be possible to have a federative
membership on some questions, confederative on others, and
associative on a third. I think that the formula 'the Union of
Sovereign States' enables us to take all that into consideration."
Later, in June 1990, Yeltsin began to push a new 500-day program
for radical economic reform, drawn up by economist Grigory
Yavlinsky. He moved at simultaneously to conclude bilateral economic
and political treaties with other republics. This would create "a
kind of horizontal complex without a vertical structure, without a
state planning committee and so on," he told a press conference June