ISCIP Update
News from the Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology and Policy
Volume I, Number 2 (23 April 2007)
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Volume I

No.1 (2 April 2007) Yushchenko dissolves parliament, new elections May 27


Boris Yel'tsin: The last day of an era past
By Susan J. Cavan, Deputy Director, ISCIP

There are often sharp contrasts in great individuals:  profound personal failings mix uncomfortably with public commitment and sacrifice.  Unfortunately, it is often the exposure of personal weakness that dominates the memory of a fallen public figure.

With the passing of Boris Yel'tsin, there are many moments, etched clearly in memory, of frailty exposed:  on a tarmac in Ireland; conducting a band in Germany; or disappearing from public at maddeningly critical moments.  These failings will not contain the measure of Yel'tsin; they are but painful reminders of what more could have been.

Boris Yel'tsin had a successful career in the Soviet system; the confluence of his position, Gorbachev's rise, and a faltering Soviet economy combined to launch a remarkable reform effort – with Yel'tsin as populist cheerleader.  When Gorbachev removed him from his post and rebuked his overstepping zeal, Yel'tsin described a profound melancholy at being so far removed from the political center. 

As fate would have it, Yel'tsin had his chance for a second act, and he seized the opportunity to create a second power center in Moscow, in the form of the Russian Federation presidency.  This battle with Gorbachev was interrupted by the need to defend him.  It is perhaps the most enduring memory of Boris Yel'tsin: standing atop a tank in front of the Russian White House, with nervous bodyguards attempting to shield him from snipers, as he demanded the return of Gorbachev from Foros and the dissolution of the 1991 coup's Emergency Committee. 

His defense of his adversary did not survive much beyond the end of the coup.  Yel'tsin took advantage of the strength of popular sentiment for change and humiliated his rival, eventually outmaneuvering him as they struggled to redesign the governing structures for the territory of the former Soviet Union.

With victory in the form of an independent Russian state, Yel'tsin began a long, painful process of reform in the economic, military, political, and social spheres – and Russia began a spiral into chaotic "shock therapy" that encompassed seemingly every aspect of life.  (Encounters with bureaucratic obstacles, a problem exacerbated by Yel'tsin's tendency to create redundant administrative organs, may have been the one constant.)  Yel'tsin also bears responsibility for launching two disastrous wars in Chechnya, the ramifications from which may be felt for decades across Russia.

Yel'tsin would never again reach the heights he did on that tank in August 1991.  His presidency saw many dark moments, perhaps none so murky as the weeks in the fall of 1993 when he dissolved parliament and eventually used tanks to dislodge political opponents from the very White House he had once arduously defended.

Yel'tsin also must answer for the selection, perhaps creation, of his successor.  It is the fundamental disorder of the reforms on his watch, carried out in fits and starts, that so discombobulated the populace as to create a yearning for stability and order.  President Putin's reversals, or modifications perhaps, of so many of the accomplishments of Yel'tsin's presidency spring from the chaos that defined the Yeltsin 1990s.  Whether Yel'tsin recognized the need for such a sharp "correction" of his earlier course and chose Vladimir Putin to guide the state along a more rigid authoritarian course or whether Putin gave Yel'tsin guarantees of immunity from prosecution for both his public decisions and the rumored "Family" corruption is irrelevant; Yel'tsin's choice and the ramifications of that choice are an integral part of his legacy.

In the end, the image of Yel'tsin as a rugged, affable, deeply emotional and viscerally bold leader must be tempered by the knowledge that Russia, although independent again, paid a dear price for his weaknesses.