Conversations on Russia: Reform from Yeltsin to Putin

By Padma Desai | Go to book overview

Introduction

When Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in March 1985, he faced daunting challenges from three directions. He had inherited an economy in crisis, a restive and costly East-Central Europe under Soviet control, and the Soviet state at home held together by an authoritarian ideology enforced from Moscow by the CPSU. By the time he resigned as president of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991, East Central Europe had slipped away from Moscow's grip, and the Soviet Union had been dissolved as well. It officially divided into separate, independent states.

In January 1992 Boris Yeltsin assumed charge as the first president of the Russian Federation, the successor state. His primary goals were to end the authoritarian Communist political system and the planned economy—not to reform them, but to finish them. To accomplish this goal, as Yeltsin later recalled in an incisive October 2003 interview published in Moscow News, "What was needed was a kamikaze crew that would step into the line of fire and forge ahead, however strong the general discontent might be. … I had to pick a team that would go up in flames but remain in history."

Yeltsin's reformers clearly achieved their goal of ending the authoritarian political arrangements and the economic management in the style of Soviet Communism before they went up in flames. By the end of 1993, Russia had a federal constitution, an elected president as the head of state, parliamentary elections, an active electronic media, and a lively press. At the same time, its firms were no longer state owned; its people could own property and businesses, travel freely, and choose jobs; its government relied on taxes for collecting revenue; and its currency was traded on foreign-exchange markets. However, controversy over Yeltsin's economic reforms and political changes has raged ever since. With every disappointment or failure that Russia has experienced since 1992, questions arise as to whether a different path of political and economic reform might have worked better.

Yeltsin's reformers, however, were so successful in ending the old economic and political patterns of state control that Yeltsin began to be concerned about whether the government could exercise its legitimate powers effectively—especially in a country as vast as Russia with ostensible federal arrangements. His decision to anoint Vladimir Putin as his successor in late 1999 demonstrated his acute unease

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