Boris Yeltsin’s survival as President of Russia despite tensions which would long since have destroyed most Western politicians is due in part to the very absence of the constraints that affect politicians in the rich democracies. In his erratic way he has done a great deal to advance democratic behaviour in his country, but Russia is not a democracy and does not judge its leaders by democratic standards – and that helps.
His sweeping victory in the 1991 Presidential elections gives him a mandate until 1996. Those elections, it’s true, were conducted under the old Soviet Constitution but the results were retrospectively legitimised by the new one, adopted – in contentious circumstances – in last December’s referendum. It isn’t really his legitimacy as a democratically elected leader that sustains Yeltsin, however, so much as his hold on the massively centralised power of the Russian state, which in its organisation has changed very little since Soviet times. There are no strong independent civic institutions, and the Army, Interior Ministry and intelligence services are still obedient to the President, while he has succeeded in implementing a new constitution that increases his personal powers and enables him, more and more often, to use its provisions to issue decrees that bypass the disorganised and inexperienced Parliament.
Most authoritarian states, even of the ‘soft’ kind, are authoritarian from the top down. In Russia Yeltsin presents himself as a liberal-democrat, and the authoritarianism tends to come from intermediate and low-ranking officials who exploit the weakness of the state almost as they did under Communism, though now there is also the mafia to contend with. All this is commented on quite freely in the media, but while allegations are easily and sometimes irresponsibly made, no one believes that anything will be done unless it would be useful to someone in high position. The normal processes of government as we understand them in the West do not exist.
Yeltsin benefits from this: as long as he has the Army and the intelligence services on his side, he can disappear from view for long periods almost as easily as Leonid Brezhnev could, claiming ill-health or even, according to his memoirs, depression so severe that he can do nothing other than stare at the walls (he says that George Bush was prone to the same condition in the last months of his Presidency). Yeltsin writes of ‘grave second thoughts, insomnia and headaches in the middle of the night, tears of despair’. One of his advisers once told me that there were weeks when Yeltsin would do nothing, not even sign decrees; and on several occasions, calls from President Clinton were not accepted, either because Yeltsin could not be found or because he would not come to the phone. There has, however, been no serious challenge to him on the grounds of illness or incompetence.
The electorate doesn’t seem interested in finding an alternative to Yeltsin; and although he has rivals, there is no single strong leader of the opposition. Despite having had so much written about him outside Russia that he now asks $5000 for a half-hour interview, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s poll ratings remain low and he has done little to build on his party’s success in the Parliamentary elections last December. He should not be dismissed – his extreme nationalist position is a dangerous one – but he is not a credible Presidential candidate. Gennady Zyuganov, the shrewd leader of the Russian Communists, has tried to put himself forward as both a moderate and a red chauvinist, but is not personally popular. Of the reformists, Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the Yabloko block, is one of the few effective politicians to have emerged since the collapse of Communism: a charming populist, he is capable of putting a rational and comprehensible case. But although he scores well in the ratings, his party did badly in the elections and has not constructed a platform which is significantly different from Yeltsin’s. Yegor Gaidar, the most influential liberal economic reformer and the leader of Russia’s Choice, has made a big effort to change himself from a painfully honest and rather shy man into a political operator, but has not really succeeded, and his position has been undermined by the desertion of such influential figures as Boris Fyodorov and Gennady Burbulis. Sergei Shakhrai, the leader of the Party of Russian Unity and Accord, is less popular than he was and has too much the air of the back-room strategist he used to be. The Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, is believed to have Presidential ambitions, but for the moment his tactic is to show conspicuous loyalty to Yeltsin: if he stands it will either be because Yeltsin has signally failed to keep him on his side or because one of them decides that his chances are better without the other.
Yeltsin swings this way and that through the political landscape, making a concession to the nationalists by cancelling the joint US-Russian peacekeeping exercises and then making a gesture in the opposite direction by easing the restrictions on foreign banks. He supports Chernomyrdin, who claims to be convinced of the reformist case in economics, but then sides with the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, who is opposed to privatisation. He seems to believe that Russia must look to the West, but is increasingly passive in resisting the neo-isolationists. He passes decrees to combat crime, alleviate poverty, suppress corruption, but does nothing to ensure that his policies are acted on. He appears to have the stomach for continued leadership, however: his close ally, the Speaker of the upper house, Vladimir Shumeiko, has proposed a prolongation of Presidential and Parliamentary terms by two years – a move which many see as the determination of the new political class to cling to office for as long as possible.
Yeltsin’s memoirs don’t make it much easier to understand the contradictions. They are much more readable and interesting than those the notables of the Gorbachev era wrote, but that isn’t saying much. The book is an expanded version of Yeltsin’s diaries of the last five years, written up by Valentin Yumashev, the talented deputy editor of the weekly magazine Ogonyok. It preserves the intimacy – and sometimes the mawkishness – of the diary form, but sacrifices analysis, clarity and order. It is clear that Yeltsin’s skill and durability as a politician stem from a mind that is at its best dispassionate, generous and blessedly unencumbered with a great deal of Communist rubble of the sort that so inhibited Gorbachev.
Yeltsin is interesting about the period before the August 1991 coup, when Gorbachev began a series of meetings with the leaders of the 15 Soviet Republics in an attempt to find a framework for a socialist federalism that would achieve the impossible: devolve power while simultaneously retaining it at the centre. Before the negotiations began Yeltsin claims that he had grasped that
the Soviet Union could not exist without the image of the empire. The image of the empire could not exist without the image of force. The USSR ended the moment the first hammer pounded the Berlin Wall. Everything that was Soviet in people’s heads – not all of them, but the most active and thinking parts of the society – had by then receded.
Gorbachev, however, had not understood this, and so the leaders of the Republics gathered at the government dacha in Novo Ogareva to discuss reforming an entity that most of them were sabotaging in their attempts to achieve de facto independence. Gorbachev obviously didn’t know what to do. Yeltsin describes him as having no position of his own left, as being intent only on buying time. Confronted by Yeltsin and Nursultan Nazarbayev, the leader of Kazakhstan, who demanded that he fire some of his hardline associates – those who later staged the coup – Gorbachev agreed without a fight. ‘Next I tried to convince Gorbachev to abandon the idea of combining the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party with President of the Soviet Union.’ Gorbachev ‘did not reject my proposal out of hand. He even sought my advice: Perhaps I ought to run for president in Soviet Union-wide elections?’
What we see here is Gorbachev tossed about like a cork by Republican leaders who were really in charge – he finally published a Union Treaty that would decisively weaken Moscow’s power, and was due to be signed the day after the coup took place. It’s a picture that lends credence to the view, which Yeltsin floats and does not decisively contradict, that
the coup was being executed according to a scenario he had prepared. The idea was to have other people do the dirty work to clear Gorbachev’s path, then he could return from vacation to a country under a state of emergency. That would enable him to put the democrats, the Russian Federation leadership, in their place as well as those upstart Baltic countries, and the rest of the Union republics that had lately been rearing their heads.
Later he says that the coup plotters ‘dumped’ Gorbachev, but the issue remains murky and Yeltsin does little to make it any clearer. My own view, based partly on the memoirs of Valery Boldin, Gorbachev’s chief of staff and a minor plotter, is that some at least of those who staged the coup believed they could sell Gorbachev the idea that he needed to have his way cleared, and that he may well have encouraged this view before the coup took place, only to realise after the event that his acquiescence would mean he was their political prisoner.
Yeltsin has some sharp things to say about the August coup itself. His acute descriptions of the members of the GKCHP (the State Committee for the Extraordinary Situation) are very Russian in the way they look for psychological explanations for people’s actions. Yeltsin claims that Gennady Yanayev, Gorbachev’s vice-president and the nominal coup leader, ‘suffered from a so-called repressed inferiority complex, when a person who has suffered some abuse since childhood suddenly begins to feel himself superior ... this ... helped the bland Yanayev to occupy a high position far beyond his capacities.’ Vladimir Kryuchkov, the KGB chairman, ‘had a hypervigilance syndrome practically since childhood. He was no longer capable of comprehending the ways of the modern world.’ Many of the plotters, especially Yanayev and the Prime Minister, Valentin Pavlov, were drunk all the time.
All in all, I look at the tragedy of the coup plotters as the tragedy of a whole platoon of government bureaucrats whom the system had turned into cogs and stripped of any human traits. Faced with the new reality where a politician, if he wanted to stay in office, had to have his own views and expression, his own internal rules, they broke down.
Yeltsin claims to have sensed the weakness of the GKCHP early on: he had after all come from within the system and knew that a group that let him move freely between his home and his office had to be less than totally ruthless. The Gorbachev years had made the Russian people more self-confident and less afraid. They had also seen the beginning of the media age, with TV cameras and reporters coming and going almost as they pleased. So when Yeltsin looked out of his window in the White House and saw all those post-Soviet people climbing up on the tanks,
suddenly I felt a jolt inside. I had to be out there right away, standing with these people ... I determinedly went downstairs ... clambered on a tank and straightened myself up tall. Perhaps I felt clearly at that moment that we were winning, that we couldn’t lose. I had a sense of utter clarity, complete unity with the people standing around me ... The shouts died down and I read the text [of the appeal to the Russian people] loudly, my voice almost breaking. Next I greeted the commander of the tank upon which I was standing and talked with the soldiers. From their faces, from the expression in their eyes. I could see they would not shoot us. I jumped down from the tank and was back in my office in a few minutes. By that time, however, I was already a completely different person.
This is usually held to be Yeltsin’s greatest moment: certainly, it is a good illustration of his strengths. He is a man of movement and impulse, with a very un-Soviet taste for the histrionic gesture. His depressions are the other side of his courage and flamboyance.
Yeltsin also provides vivid character sketches of his more recent enemies and allies. Alexander Rutskoi, once his deputy and now his most bitter opponent, could not ‘understand and accept his own status ... he looked for a way out of this impasse’ and found it in the role of ‘moraliser, a guardian of ethics, a sanctimonious figure out of Molière who, with a humble and inspired expression, claws his way towards the President’s seat’. Of his main economic reformer, Yegor Gaidar, Yeltsin claims that he was simply an independent man with an enormous but not ostentatious sense of his own worth. But he is especially good on two of his opponents: Ruslan Khasbulatov, the former Speaker of the Supreme Soviet, and Valery Zorkin, the chairman of the Constitutional Court, both of whom were politically destroyed by the Parliamentary uprising in October last year. Yeltsin had at first thought Khasbulatov ‘intelligent’, ‘reasonable’, ‘unassuming’, and Zorkin ‘a quiet decent member of the intelligentsia’, realising only later that these meek images were a cover for megalomania. The Soviet intelligentsia, as it happens, produced many people who were given very great responsibilities that they were unable to fulfil because of inexperience, ignorance and a need to seem always in control while refusing to accept the consequences of their decisions. As Yeltsin says elsewhere:
the problem is that our politicians are totally devoid of any personal ethics. There are no traditions for political behaviour. You often have to look not only at someone’s personal skills, but at their personal qualities as well. In a new situation, and in a situation where a person acquires enormous power and a high position, he may unexpectedly show his true colours and turn out to be quite different from what you thought.
Yeltsin’s attention to character and detail is sometimes turned on himself, and on his progression from Communist fast-tracker to pariah, then from national saviour to world statesman. He writes well about how it feels to be a famous figure in a society that was abruptly exposed to the attentions of the media.
The main problem with being a president is the constant sense that you are in a glass bowl for everyone to see, or in a kind of barometric chamber with an artificial atmosphere where you must stay all the time. Someone is always trying to take you by the arm, to suggest something, to make things comfortable, more comfortable, still more comfortable. A kind of psychological numbness sets in, unnoticed by those around you, and soon you have the sensation that you are swathed in cotton ... all presidents live this way.
He also gives some partial insights into the hold that corruption and organised crime have on Russian society. He tells how the Security Minister, Viktor Barannikov, who was later involved in the Parliamentary rebellion, introduced him to a Russian businessman called Boris Birshtein, who ran a Swiss-based company called Siabeco. At a lunch with Yeltsin in Barannikov’s dacha, Birshtein gave a glowing account of his business to a silent Yeltsin – then suddenly stopped and left. Yeltsin does not say if Birshtein tried to get him to agree to any deal, but adds:
The appearance before me of such a magnate as Boris Birshtein was indicative of the severity of the problem [of criminality]. In order to cross that ethical line, in order to run that red stoplight, under Russian conditions you don’t necessarily have to peddle pornography, sell drugs, or deal in contraband cheap goods. Why fool around with such nickel-and-dime stuff? It’s easier to buy one government official after another. Birshtein tried to get to the very top – and he almost made it. There was just a little way more to go.
Later Yeltsin found out that Barannikov and his deputy had both been bought by Birshtein and they were sacked – though not for corruption.
The intimate sections of Yeltsin’s book are often attractive, but they can also seem boastful or self-serving. The straightforward chronological narrative, which runs from 1991 to the present, is intercut with passages entitled ‘After Midnight’, which purport to be the sleepless musings of the President on the subject of himself and his past. These can be pretty bad: he claims that if he had known his father had been arrested by the NKVD he would not have made his career in the Communist Party; boasts of his mental and physical toughness; and, worst of all, claims that the economic ‘shock therapy’, which was never actually implemented in Russia, was hardest on him: ‘the first person who had to suffer this shock – and suffer it repeatedly – would be me, the President.’
The middle section of this book – about one-third of the total – concerns the October Events, which must be of central importance in any judgment of Yeltsin’s presidency. Yeltsin says that the Russian Parliament, elected, as he was, in 1991 under Communist rules, had declared war on him, battling with him on every issue of substance, hostile to economic reform and anxious to extend its power over policy, ministerial appointments and foreign affairs. Tension rose throughout 1992 and reached a climax in March 1993 when an impeachment motion was tabled and failed only narrowly to achieve a two-thirds majority. In April, a referendum was put to the Russian people: did they support the President, did they support his economic policies and did they want early Presidential and Parliamentary elections? On the first two counts, there were majorities in favour of Yeltsin and for a few weeks the Parliamentarians were nonplussed.
Yeltsin, however, fell into one of his depressions and the opposition took heart, encouraged by allegations of corruption in Yeltsin’s entourage. Finally, on 21 September, Yeltsin announced on television his intention to dissolve Parliament and call new elections. Later that night the majority of the deputies gathered in the White House, an indefinite extraordinary session of Parliament was convened, and Alexander Rutskoi was named as the true President of Russia, with new ministers of defence, security and internal affairs. A cordon of troops was placed round the White House: people could get out, but not in again, and the utilities were cut off. The Patriarch, Alexei II, offered to mediate, but the recent publication of the transcripts of his meetings show how forlorn any hope of a negotiated settlement was. Demonstrations continued but were sporadic and poorly attended. On Sunday 3 October, however, at least ten thousand people met at Oktyabarskaya Square on the inner ring road and set off for the White House
I followed the marchers as they surged along the ring road, sweeping the militia before them. They caught some of them and beat them up, slashed tyres, burned cars and pushed aside fire hoses as they went, meeting only minimal resistance from the troops. Within an hour most of the marchers had reached the White House, got through the cordon of soldiers and liberated the defenders – including several hundred armed irregulars, many of whom were wearing Fascist insignia. They then launched a successful attack on the Mayor’s offices opposite and an ultimately unsuccessful one on the television station five kilometres away. Eventually, the military leadership, sitting in conclave in the Defence Ministry a few hundred metres from the White House, was persuaded to bring in some of the crack divisions around Moscow: the White House defenders were crushed and the ringleaders imprisoned.
It has been alleged, most recently by Jonathan Steele in Eternal Russia, that the crowd managed to liberate the White House not because of police incompetence or weakness but because of ‘something more sinister’: he suggests, without quite saying so, that the marchers and White House defenders were pulled onto the punch with the aim of having them fire the first shots and thereby allowing the pro-Presidential forces to respond under the cover of quelling an armed revolt. This story has been put forward quite often and is widely believed in Moscow.
Yeltsin, of course, has an entirely different account. He says that he was at home with his family that Sunday when he got a phone call from General Mikhail Barsukov, head of the Kremlin and the Presidential Guards, telling him what was happening in Moscow’s streets. He immediately began to make arrangements to declare a state of emergency in Moscow. General Victor Yerin, the Interior Minister, reported ‘how an organised attack had been made on his people, how the police had been forced to step back when the armed crowd had surged forward, and some officers were forced to flee. With his voice shaking slightly, he reported how his policemen, who had been strictly reminded each day not to react to provocations and who had come on duty without their assault weapons, had been taunted, had their overcoats and uniforms torn from them, had been beaten and some even killed. We agreed that from now on the police would be tough and if necessary use assault weapons.’
Much later that night Yeltsin went down to the Ministry of Defence. Despite earlier assurances, the Minister, Pavel Grachev, hadn’t produced any additional troops. Prompted by Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin, he now ordered tanks from the surrounding region to come to Moscow. Yeltsin claims that he
made every effort to avoid a violent clash. In order to do that we took a very dangerous step, as I now understand it: we disarmed the entire police ... The effect of our excessive caution was immediately obvious. As soon as people were injured or killed, the Moscow police left their posts ... the people in the Kremlin – me among them – feared ending up in the role of the August Coup plotters. That accounted for our terrible clumsiness and indecisiveness and our lurch almost to the brink of the abyss.
There is no way of knowing exactly what happened, at least not at present, but Yeltsin’s account seems to me to chime better, not only with the observable facts, but also with the attitude of the Government and the Armed Forces, both of which were in fatalistic mood, anxious not to take actions for which they could subsequently be blamed. I can believe that General Yerin had ordered his men not to use force: the Yeltsin Government was desperate not to give the press, foreign or domestic, any opportunity to show police brutality – its legitimacy depended on people believing it had broken with all that.
The more important question is how much Yeltsin was to blame for the impasse between the executive and the legislature which culminated in the insurrection – and its suppression. Like most leaders, Yeltsin isn’t very frank about his failures and his description of events is so vague and inconsistent it is hard to judge his actions. He can confess to large mistakes – ‘Sometimes I don’t look anything like the Yeltsin everyone has grown used to seeing. I mean, I can fly off the handle in a stupid way like a child’ – but is less often specific. He seems to see the opposition of the Congress of People’s Deputies as personal and its manifestations as a test of his character. Of the occasion, at the Seventh Congress of People’s Deputies, when he strode from the hall, he says: ‘When deputies who are snickering, confident of their absolute impunity, are looking at you either point-blank or furtively, it’s hard to react correctly or appropriately. You cannot imagine how difficult it is. In this situation, I feel better immediately I’ve acted.’ But the deputies grew hostile for good reasons. The Constitution under which the country was ruled had given virtually all power to the Supreme Soviet yet Yeltsin demanded more and more as his right. As the country went through convulsions, he veered between offering concessions, ignoring Parliament and, in interviews, promising to take it on and win. There was some justice in Khasbulatov and Rutskoi’s claim that Yeltsin saw himself as the new tsar.
But the case for Yeltsin, though unconvincingly put in his book, is the better one. It is better for the West because Yeltsin is still the leader most likely to go on pushing for Russia’s integration into world markets and world society, to moderate the threat Russia has traditionally posed to its European neighbours and to pursue military and strategic cooperation. He is also a more convincing representative of democratic values than his Parliamentary rivals. However erratically, he has attempted to extend popular sovereignty and choice and has usually sided, although less so recently, with those who are trying to establish the market economy that is Russia’s only hope. I broadly believe him when he speaks of the impossibility of introducing democratic institutions using formally democratic methods. Unfortunately, his Government’s passivity, and the consequent failure to make rapid progress towards a market economy, gave the pro-Communists and nationalists time to gather strength and relaunch themselves. And in this situation Yeltsin was faced with the alternative of surrendering to the Old Guard or breaching the Constitution. As he puts it,
this was a fight to change the foundations of the state. To define it even more precisely, this was a long, carefully orchestrated attempt to overthrow the Government. If I had realised sooner that this Parliament would not pass a new Constitution under any conditions, that it was incapable of coming to any agreement or of creating laws, there wouldn’t have been any bloodshed. There wouldn’t have been any victims. There wouldn’t have been any moral shock, we all felt. There wouldn’t have been the schism among democratic groupings in society that threatened to escalate into a new crisis.
One doesn’t have to believe that he had the skill to avoid the moral shock and the bloodshed to accept that the Presidential-Parliamentary struggle was a struggle to the death and to be glad that Yeltsin won.