The Last Years of the Soviet Empire: Snapshots from 1985-1991

By Vladimir Shlapentokh; Neil F. O'Donnell | Go to book overview

A DRAMA FOR TWO PLAYERS: THE GORBACHEV-YELTSIN CONFRONTATION, ACT II NOVEMBER 1990

Despite the number of important political actors crowding the stage in 1990,
the spotlight still belonged to Gorbachev and Yeltsin. This snapshot reflects
the ways in which their decisions and actions were influenced by their
respective roles: Yeltsin, the newcomer, had no script and could improvise
as he went along; Gorbachev, the old star, was constrained by rigid scripts
and roles firmly established by his predecessors. The events seen here echo
a process captured in several earlier snapshots: Yeltsin's facility with the
political left forced Gorbachev ever further to the right.

On November 16, Gorbachev for the first time faced open anger from the usually obedient deputies of the Supreme Soviet. Gorbachev's dramatic and sometimes tragic speeches since then have revealed a fundamental new element in Soviet politics--Gorbachev has acknowledged Yeltsin as his first real political opponent, and has vowed to fight him using every legal means possible.

The conflict between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, which is central to the political struggle in Moscow, is fueled by the two leaders' deep mutual animosity. Gorbachev considers Yeltsin a spoiler and an adventurist who, for purely ambitious reasons, has presented himself as the sole protector of the Russian people. Yeltsin, on the other hand, believes that although Gorbachev initiated an important process, he has proven to be incompetent, indecisive, and unimaginative, and is concerned only with preserving and extending his personal power. Each believes that the other is prepared to destroy the Soviet state in order to further his career.

In many ways, the programs advanced by Gorbachev and Yeltsin are not all that different. Both advocate a Western model for their country--one with a market economy based on mixed property and a democratic political order. The primary difference between the two lies in their opposing views regarding the future of the Soviet empire.

Even for those familiar with him, Yeltsin has proven to be an extraordinarily shrewd politician. In the perpetual chess game that is Moscow, Yeltsin has managed to capitalize on two blunders by Gorbachev, who, after a promising gambit early in the game, now finds himself in serious trouble.

From early on, Gorbachev believed that if the non-Russian republics were given significant, genuine autonomy, the empire could be maintained, even after the introduction of democracy. This was his first mistake.

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