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Boris Yeltsin’s bloody legacy

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Issue 1678


Boris Yeltsin’s bloody legacy

By Alex Callinicos

THE MEDIA were geared so exclusively to covering the millennium non-event that the appearance on New Year’s Eve of a genuinely big news story-Boris Yeltsin’s resignation as Russian president-threw them into disarray. Equally taken by surprise, Western leaders fumbled for the right words to send Yeltsin off the stage of history. Bill Clinton damned him with faint praise for bringing Russia to “the point of democracy”. But Yeltsin still has some Western admirers. The journalist John Lloyd proclaimed him “The Man Who Set Russia Free” in last Monday’s Financial Times.

It’s true that there was a brief moment when Yeltsin did seem like a real fighter for democracy. This came in the late 1980s when the Stalinist system went into irreversible crisis. He was the only leading figure from the old regime to press for the dismantling of the system of power based on the Communist Party’s political monopoly.

The bungled attempt of the regime’s conservative wing to mount a coup in August 1991 gave Yeltsin his chance. He had the courage to defy the coup, rallying popular support to defend the Russian parliament. But when the coup failed, Yeltsin quickly showed how superficial his protestations of democracy were. The Communist Party was levered from power, but the main beneficiaries were the presidential entourage and the financial oligarchy it helped to create.

In 1993 Yeltsin sent in the army to bombard the same building he had defended barely two years before. He did this after the parliament, whose democratic credentials were as good as Yeltsin’s, rebelled against him. The bunch of pro-Western “reformers” Yeltsin had brought to office in 1991 cheered him on. They believed that an all-powerful president could impose market capitalism in Russia. The result was an economic catastrophe unrivalled in modern history. Today the Russian economy is little more than half the size it was when Yeltsin first became president.

The ordinary working people who backed him against the old regime have been subjected to the most appalling impoverishment. The misery has not, however, been equally shared. According to the United Nations Development Programme, “Russia has now the greatest inequality-the income share of the richest 20 percent is 11 times that of the poorest 20 percent.” This state of affairs is a direct consequence of the policies pursued by Yeltsin’s governments.

Anatoli Chubais is one of the Russian pro-market liberals most popular among Western governments and international institutions. In Russia he is deeply hated as a kind of Rasputin figure. As deputy prime minister, Chubais organised probably the most corrupt privatisation ever in December 1995. He handed over controlling shares in Russia’s leading companies, notably in the profitable energy sector, to a handful of big private banking groups. Then, as presidential chief of staff, he successfully managed Yeltsin’s re-election campaign in 1996. He simply got these bankers to supply money and sympathetic media coverage. Russians dubbed the resulting regime “The Rule of the Seven Bankers”.

The thieves soon fell out, but the concentration of economic and political power remains. Money buys political influence, and political influence is crucial both to making money and to hanging onto it once you’ve got it. This rich man’s “democracy” was on display during last month’s presidential elections. The big business tycoons mostly swung their media empires behind the parties associated with Yeltsin. Boris Berezovsky, the banker closest to the presidential family, effectively bought a seat in a poor area of Moscow by promising to spend money on the area.

Beneath all the dramatic changes of the past decade, what is striking is the continuity of power. Russia is still dominated by the nomenklatura-the oligarchy of party and state officials who ran the old Soviet Union. Yeltsin himself was a member of the Communist Party politburo. His anointed heir, Vladimir Putin, was a KGB agent in East Germany. No wonder the Russians talk about “nomenklatura capitalism”. In Yeltsin’s defence, John Lloyd argues that Yeltsin at least brought political freedom: “The people who voted for and often cursed Mr Yeltsin were not curbed by him.”

It’s true that Russia is no longer a police state, but the security apparatus which ran that state is very much in business. Its man is in the Kremlin, waging what may be the first of many wars to reconquer the empire the Russian state lost when the Soviet Union collapsed. As Yeltsin headed for the exit, Putin issued a decree protecting Yeltsin’s family from prosecution for corruption. That says it all about Russia’s new “democracy”.

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