How much is he to blame?

John Lloyd

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.

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