- The Washington Times - Monday, January 3, 2000

The resignation of Boris Yeltsin ended a transitional era in Russian politics, which began with Mikhail Gorbachev's ascent to power in 1985. Mr. Yeltsin accelerated Mr. Gorbachev's reforms, bringing about the dissolution of the Soviet Empire, the USSR, and giving the coup de grace to the iron rule of the Communist Party. Mr. Yeltsin should also be credited for ushering in a working democratic political process, albeit in a rather inelegant fashion.
Mr. Yeltsin, as many a revolutionary before him, came from the ruling class of the previous regime, from the apex of the communist nomenklatura. He was a nonvoting member of Mikhail 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. Mr. 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 history and that of the world would have been very different if the grey apparatchik conspirators, which included Mr. Gorbachev's own vice president, the Soviet defense minister, the interior minister and the head of the KGB, had succeeded in restoring Brezhnevite USSR and eliminating Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin.
Mr. 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. However, 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 the 1993 Duma pardon of the hard-line opposition. Mr. Yeltsin allowed parliamentary elections and accepted their bitter results in 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 made use of it. Once he had pushed through a constitution, he adhered to it, refusing his confidante and chief bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov's advice to cancel the 1996 presidential elections.
However, Mr. Yeltsin's weaknesses and 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 abused by insiders. He never understood the necessity to quickly 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. Mr. Yeltsin presided over an unprecedented deterioration in Russia's internal security and law enforcement. The population became disgruntled as bandits ruled the streets and businesses, while business people, 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.
Mr. Yeltsin launched an unsuccessful war in Chechnya in 1994, hoping to boost his flagging popularity. The war, unconstitutional and ill-conceived, brought great humiliation to the Russian military and allowed Chechnya to effect a de facto succession. One of the reasons Mr. Yeltsin failed so abysmally in 1994-1996 was that he failed to reform or keep outside the grip of pervasive corruption the Russian military and security services another weakness of his presidency. Mr. Yeltsin authorized a new invasion of Chechnya in September 1999, to neutralize the earlier defeat and possibly to assist his hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin, to get elected.
Finally, there is the ignominy of Yeltsin's presidential pardon by Mr. Putin. The ex-ruler of Russia 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 Mr. Yeltsin's family members received villas as presents from influential Russian businessmen. When Russia's left-leaning former Prosecutor General 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. Mr. Skuratov was fired by Yeltsin in the wake of the rather conveniently timed scandal. Now, acting Russian President Putin has pardoned Mr. 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. Mr. Yeltsin also received a life pension and a state dacha. An orderly transition of power? Maybe. A demonstration that you can get away with a lot while in public office. Certainly.
Whether Mr. Yeltsin will be remembered for bringing down communism and the USSR and presiding over the transition to market economy, or for institutionalizing corruption, failing to reform the security apparatus and the military, and embroiling Russia in a prolonged war in the Caucasus, will largely depend on where Russia goes from here. Thus, Mr. Yeltsin's place in history, to a degree, is in the hands of his chosen successor, Vladimir Putin. The Yeltsin chapter in the Russian quest for identity and its place in the world is over. The Putin chapter has begun.

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