Tuesday, April 24, 2007

God Bless you, Boris Yeltsin

Since literally NO ONE in the MSM has noticed (with their childish 13 year old mindset), a great man passed yesterday. Boris Yeltsin was indispensable in the transition from USSR to modern Russia (his successor is a brutish thug). That his death drew almost no notice tells us all we need to know about the nature of the American main stream press...T

I WILL NEVER FORGET the first time I saw Boris Yeltsin in person. It was in Dallas in September 1989--slightly less than two years after he was fired from his job as Moscow's chief Communist Party boss and lost his seat on the old Soviet-era Politburo. His political revival had begun earlier that year with his election to the Congress of People's Deputies, and he was touring the United States as the "comeback kid" of Soviet politics.

His one-time patron-turned political adversary, Mikhail Gorbachev, had called the Congress as an attempt to create a popularly elected semi-legislative body that could push through the reforms he had been unsuccessful in forcing through the notoriously regressive Communist Party apparatus. It was supposed to be Gorbachev's pedestal that he would use to vault over his political opponents. Instead it made--or rather, relaunched--Yeltsin's career. Gorbachev's humiliation and political demise would come two years later in August 1991 when a hapless crew of Communist functionaries attempted to remove him and reinstate a hard-line, Stalinist-style regime. As the coup collapsed, Yeltsin became the hero of the day as he climbed atop a tank near the Russian Republic parliament building (called the "Beliy Dom" or "White House" at the time) and it was clear that the old Soviet empire was dead.

On that September day in Dallas Yeltsin was very much the man the world would see on top of that tank two years later. He was the larger-than-life politician we would come to know later as the first
democratically elected president of the Russian Federation during the final days of the Soviet period, and then later as the leader of the new, independent Russian state that was formed after the liquidation of the USSR. He was bombastic, uncompromising, and full of hyperbolic criticisms against and solutions for the removal of the Communist Party regime. At one point he told the crowd assembled by the Dallas Council on World Affairs that "some of the party functionaries need to be punched out of their positions of power and luxurious privileges like a pilot being ejected from a jet fighter aircraft. Just give me the button to press."

Most of his political life Yeltsin was--as one of his biographies described him--a man going against the grain of the ruling order. His tenure as Russia's president was tempestuous. His regime saw the collapse of the old USSR's command economy, several rounds of hyperinflation that wiped out the savings of many Russians, suppression of a would-be rebellion in 1993 by military force, and numerous other political and economic upheavals.

Looking back, it is hard to believe that Russia made it through the 1990s without collapsing in some cataclysm. The people of Russia (as well as the rest of the world) were exceedingly fortunate that Yeltsin never let the many forces whirling about him reach the point where Russia itself would spin out of control. I lived in Moscow for most of the 1990s and witnessed a lot of this first-hand. Being in Russia in those days was almost like living through another revolutionary period. One never knew what the world would look like each morning, a surprise middle-of-the-night dismissal of the entire government happened more than once, and at times you held your breath waiting for what might be coming next.

Despite his flaws, Yeltsin was a man who defied all of his opponents and critics. His political death certificate was written several times--only to see him rise against the odds and stay in the game. Physically, few expected him to survive to reach a second term. A friend of mine working for one of the major U.S. news bureaus in Moscow told me one day in 1996 that their assignment for the weekend was to write Yeltsin's obituary. Everyone was sure he would succumb to his heart illness at any moment; the bureau chief wanted to have the file footage and script in the can ready for broadcast when the time came. As usual, he fooled them all and stayed alive for another 11 years until his heart finally gave out this week.

None of Yeltsin's historic achievements made the Russian population regard his tenure with any sense or respect or fondness. He is reviled by many as having presided over Russia's precipitous decline in international prestige. He is resented for having let much of Russia's state-owned wealth (i.e. oil companies, aluminum plants, etc.) fall into private hands for a fraction of its true value. His most powerful supporters, such as Boris Berezovskiy, were not only distrusted by the regime of Vladimir Putin who succeeded Yeltsin, but were either thrown into prison (like Yukos president Mikhail Khordokovskiy) or forced into exile.

All of which demonstrates that Russians have both short memories and an odd sense of what makes a "great leader." As a Communist Party official Yeltsin was the quintessential populist. He rode the public transport in Moscow to work to see how well it did (or did not) work. He stood in line with ordinary citizens in the shops and berated the staff when he saw signs of shoddy service. He turned down the luxurious country house, or dacha as they are called, that was one of the perks of his position as Moscow city party boss.

None of this principled leadership is likely ever to be seen with the current government in Moscow. Putin and his senior aides travel in a phalanx of security guards and armored Mercedes limousines fitted with electronic jammers designed to defeat roadside bombs and blank out mobile phone signals. Every step possible is taken to insulate them from the general public. A Moscow colleague said recently "one has to go all the way back to the Stalin years to find anything resembling the level of power and paranoia that now characterizes their public appearances."

Under Yeltsin there was an open, if sometimes chaotic political dialogue. Newspapers, television networks, radio stations and other outlets were more or less free to say what they wanted. In Putin's Russia the state's control and/or intimidation of most of the media has almost completely eliminated anything resembling public debate. Programs like Viktor Shenderovich's Kukly ("Puppets"), which ran from 1994 to 2003, were merciless in satirizing the ups and downs of the Yeltsin years, but the marionette comedy was abruptly taken off the air when Putin took offense at the manner in which he was portrayed in one week's segment.

During the Yeltsin period, as is the common complaint, Russia was the "wild east." Corruption was rampant and the people needed a strong hand to restore order. But order cannot be restored when there is no accountability in government and the press is muzzled.

According to last autumn's Transparency International survey, Russia's Corruptions Perception index is a lowly 2.4 on a scale of 0 to 10--the same score that the country earned in the last year of Yeltsin's rule. The Russia ruled by Putin's "dictatorship of the law" is now in the same corruption bracket as Albania. The neighboring nations of Belarus and Ukraine--not famous for their incorruptibility--have better scores than the regime in Moscow.

Yeltsin's government saw a number of high-profile murders, but almost all were the result of business disputes or of one organized crime syndicate attempting to move in on another's operations. The murders have continued under Putin, but the victims are no longer oil barons or casino managers. They are the ex-secret policeman's political critics like journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Ivan Safranov, or Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko, who barely survived a pre-election poisoning attempt by forces allied with his then-campaign opponent, Viktor Yanukovich, who was actively supported by Putin.

Most notably, under Yeltsin no one ever pilfered millions of dollars worth of exotic nuclear materials and carried them onto a British Airways aircraft (leaving a trail of radioactivity in their wake) so that they could provide one of the Russian government's critics in exile with a particularly gruesome death. Again, one has to return to the Stalin years to find the full assets of the state being used to terrorize anyone and everyone living in any country that has a bad word to say about the regime.

The main difference in the two leaders is that Yeltsin was possessed of a visceral desire to eradicate the undemocratic nature of the old regime. Stanislav Shushkevich, the man who steered Belarus into independence in 1991, told the press this week that the breakup of the USSR "would not have been bloodless if Russia had been led by someone else." Given today's interference by Moscow in the internal affairs of Ukraine as the fledging democracy tries to break away from Russia and form ties with NATO and the E.U. one wonders if this conflict will end without bloodshed.

This week Renaissance Capital, the Moscow-based investment bank that is one of Putin's biggest cheerleaders, released a survey of 1,600 Russian citizens across 46 regions in which 80 percent of the respondents favored Putin staying in office for a third term. Private banks are usually not in the polling business, but in this case another four years of Putin means the money keeps coming in. That's how the money men in Russia like things--neat, tidy and predictable, not messy.

And that in the end is the biggest difference between Yeltsin and his successor. Earlier in the year Igor Malashenko, one of the founders of the once-independent NTV, was quoted as saying that Yeltsin "loved the mess" of democracy. Democracy is, by its very nature, unruly. Yeltsin understood and gloried in this fact. It is a pity--if not a tragedy--that Russia's government now seems to have sold its population on idolizing a regime that represents everything Boris Yeltsin tried to eradicate from Russia's political system.
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1 Comment:

James said...

I remember of all thing - an article by Yeltsin in National Review. (Can this be right?!)

He was a man of courage who emerged from the Hell of the USSR, and he should nobe forgotten. (Though I thing most now forget or never knew the truth of the USSR.)