Was Boris Yeltsin, who resigned the Russian presidency on Dec. 31, a bold reformer who blazed a path toward Russian democracy or a corrupt bumbler who ushered in an era of Russian kleptocracy? The verdict of history has yet to be written, but the answer will most likely be both.
By speeding up the reforms begun by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, Yeltsin brought about the dissolution of the Soviet Empire and gave the coup de grace to the iron rule of the Communist Party. More than any other Russian leader, he deserves credit for creating a working democratic political process, albeit in a rather inelegant fashion.
As many a revolutionary before him, Yeltsin came from the ruling class of the previous regime, from the apex of the communist nomenklatura. He was a non-voting member of Gorbachev's Politburo and first secretary of the Moscow city party organization before he officially broke with the communists and launched his own power bid.
Yeltsin's star performance on the world stage was as leader of the opposition to the hard-line communist coup in August 1991. Russia's history¾ and that of the world¾ would have been very different if the gray apparatchik conspirators, which included Gorbachev's own vice-president, the Soviet defense minister, the interior minister and the head of the KGB, had succeeded in restoring a Brezhnevite U.S.S.R. and eliminating Gorbachev and Yeltsin.
Yeltsin's personal style was authoritarian. In October 1993, he sent troops to shell the "White House," then the seat of a rebellious Russian Supreme Soviet dominated by communists and other hard-liners. He did not allow other politicians to build a political power base, changing his prime ministers as often as Nicholas II. But unlike the last czar, his instincts were democratic.
He refused to rule as an autocrat after defeating the Supreme Soviet. He did not dispute the decision of the pro-communist courts to pardon the 1991 coup plotters or of the Duma (the lower house of the Russian Parliament) in 1993 to pardon the hard-line opposition. Yeltsin allowed parliamentary elections and accepted their bitter results both in 1993, which gave a victory to the clownish nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and in 1995, a communist last hurrah. While he had the authority to disperse the Duma and call for new elections, he never used it. Once he had pushed through a constitution, he adhered to it, refusing the advice of his confidante and chief bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov to cancel the 1996 presidential elections.
But Yeltsin's drawbacks were as significant as his achievements. While operating well in crises, he quickly lost interest in the daily affairs of the state. Lacking both economic and legal knowledge, he allowed the privatization of the vast and obsolete Russian industrial base to be commandeered and abused by insiders. He never understood the need to build a functioning legal system and maintain an adequate law-enforcement apparatus. Having surrounded himself with corrupt cronies and financiers, he paid only lip service to fighting crime and corruption. The population became disgruntled as bandits ruled the streets and the businesses, while entrepreneurs, foreign and domestic, balked at investing.
Taken together, the failures of the post-communist transformation and the inability to construct even a minimal social safety net caused a deterioration in the living standard of tens of millions of Russians, and helped make Boris Yeltsin as unpopular at the end of his term as Mikhail Gorbachev was at the end of his.
Finally, there is the ignominy of Yeltsin's presidential pardon by his successor, Vladimir Putin. Yeltsin and his family were allegedly connected to a massive bribery scandal originating with the Mobitex company based in Lugano, Switzerland. There are also persistent rumors in Moscow that Yeltsin's family members received villas as presents from influential Russian businessmen.
When Russia's left-leaning former Prosecutor Gen. Yurii Skuratov attempted to investigate the accusations, a tape surfaced showing him cavorting with two prostitutes allegedly paid for by a banker he was also investigating. Skuratov was fired by Yeltsin in the wake of the rather conveniently timed scandal. Now, acting Russian President Putin has pardoned Yeltsin for any possible misdeeds and granted him total immunity from being prosecuted (or even from being searched and questioned) for any and all actions committed while in office.
Whether Yeltsin will be remembered for bringing down communism or for institutionalizing corruption will largely depend on where Russia goes from here. Thus, Yeltsin's place in history, to a degree, is in the hands of his chosen successor. The Yeltsin chapter in Russia's quest for its place in the world is over. The Putin chapter has begun.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune News Service