- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 1, 2000

You can call Boris Yeltsin many things, but don't call him boring. With his customary flair for the dramatic, the former Russian president announced on New Year's Eve, the last day of the 20th century and the second millennium, that he was stepping down, leaving the leadership of Russia in the hands of Prime Minister Valdimir Putin. Though Mr. Yeltsin has been shaky both personally and politically for years, the news nonetheless landed like a bombshell amidst the international coverage of millennium celebrations around the world.
&160;&160;&160;&160;&160;&160;Mr. Yeltsin's timing, though, is assuredly impeccable. It was on New Year's Eve in 1991 that the Russian president declared the end of the Soviet Union and ruthlessly yanked the reins of power from the hands of the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Mr. Gorbachev summarily found himself deprived of a country to govern, in fact of as much as an office space to occupy in the Kremlin. As the Soviet flag was lowered, Mr. Gorbachev was packing his boxes.
&160;&160;&160;&160;&160;&160;Only months before, Mr. Yeltsin had saved the skin of his opponent by defying the Soviet military coup d'etat in August, 1990. The sight of Mr. Yeltsin in shirtsleeves and carpet slippers on top of a tank in the streets of Moscow inspired the world. It was with good reason that huge hopes were pinned on this mercurial, very Russian, but clearly also very courageous and charismatic figure.
&160;&160;&160;&160;&160;&160;The many leaders who rallied behind him here in the West were not mistaken, and that is even true of the support Mr. Yeltsin received when he brought his own tanks out against the Communist-dominated Russian Duma, which had barricaded itself in the White House, the Russian parliament building. The one overriding action which earns Mr. Yeltsin a place in the history books is his death blow to the communist system. Though having come up through party ranks, he was devastatingly sacked from the party in 1987 (by Mikhail Gorbachev, of course), dragged from the hospital where he was in a state of nervous collapse and forced to endure a four hour exercise in personal humiliation. Whether or not his own ordeal became the motivating factor in later actions, Mr. Yeltsin's determination to ensure that the communist regime would not rise again is surely something we should all appreciate.
&160;&160;&160;&160;&160;&160;As good as he was at tearing down, however, Mr. Yeltsin displayed no aptitude for building up. The hopes were high nine years ago, but the Russian transition to a market economy and democratic institutions (recent elections notwithstanding) that everybody were expecting did not materialize. It turned out that the absence of communism did not mean the growth of market economics automatically, far from it. Nor did billions of dollars in aid from international lending institutions mean a safety net for beleaguered Russian citizens. Instead the 1990s saw the rise of a spectacularly kleptocratic oligarchy centered on the Kremlin and its financial backers, sucking the wealth out of the country. Western style reforms never failed in Russia, they never actually occurred in the first place. A large part of the blame for that also belongs to Mr. Yeltsin. By August 1998, the Russian smoke-and-mirrors economy came tumbling down, revealing a state of de facto bankruptcy.
&160;&160;&160;&160;&160;&160;With the Russian economy in ruins, living standards and average life span plummeting for ordinary citizens, the latest Yeltsin government under Mr. Putin has resorted to massive old-fashioned brute force in the renewed war against Chechnya to rally the population. Tragically, it seems to be working only too well, and acting President Putin is now the hands-down favorite to win presidential elections set for March. Equally important for the former leader, Mr. Putin has granted immunity from prosecution to Mr. Yeltsin which may well have been the most important element in his decision to step down at this time. Mr. Yeltsin and his family are suspected of having spirited away significant amounts of Russia's missing public funds.
&160;&160;&160;&160;&160;&160;Russia's first elected president was clearly a flawed vessel for all the hopes that were placed on him. Boris Yeltsin was a transitional figure. The question now stands, transition to what?

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