THE YELTSIN MYTHOLOGY
Section, Los Angeles Times
(Sunday edition), November 14, 1993
by Gregory Freidin
The specter of despotism haunts Russian politics, one
born of incompetence.
Few would argue that much of the responsibility for
the near total failure of Russian politics lies with Boris N. Yeltsin’s
defeated adversaries. Blame for last month’s bloody confrontation must
be shared by the Yeltsin government and the president himself. For more
than two years Yeltsin has been Russia's preeminent ruler
and acknowledged as such by the majority of citizens. The time is
ripe to take a closer look at his leadership and the myths that have grown
up around it.
Myth #1: The
only way Yeltsin could solve the country's problems was to disband the
While it has some basis in reality, this myth
cloaks a sobering truth: Yeltsin is incapable of functioning in a
democratic context. The Parliament he dissolved was the same body that
elected him speaker in 1991
despite Gorbachev’s strong opposition; amended the constitution to
include a respectable bill of rights; founded the office of a popularly
elected President; and following the failed coup of August, 1991, granted
Yeltsin the powers to govern by decree.
The political honeymoon went sour because
Yeltsin, cleansed though he was by his break with the communist party, has
never been able to transcend his limitation as a communist-style
politician, a tough and abrasive secretary of the regional party
committee. In short, a regional Soviet despot.
Yeltsin construed the early cooperation of the
disbanded Parliament as its acknowledgement of his right to rule
unchallenged, because his political experience was shaped by the communist
script--a servile Soviet legislature bows and scrapes before the party’s
Myth #2: The
upcoming elections to the new parliament and the referendum on the new
constitution will solve the legitimacy crisis.
This is, at best, a partial truth. With the election
commission run by Yeltsin’s appointees, free of any independent
oversight, and with the television spewing out unabashedly pro-Yeltsin
propaganda, the stature of the future parliament is bound to be
The long-awaited--for some 200 years!--democratic
Constitution, though an improvement of the earlier draft, remains flawed.
The constitutional lines separating regional and federal authority are
blurred, with many governmental functions assigned to “joint
jurisdiction.” The future Parliament cannot promulgate budget-related
legislation “without the Government’s prior approval.” And the
principle of checks and balances is severely undermined: Government
ministers are allowed to be elected to the lower house while the
president-appointed regional governors can run for its upper chamber.
Rather than strengthening the presidency, these
provisions, ultimately blurring the lines of authority, can only encourage
confusion and arbitrary rule.
Myth #3: There
is no one but Yeltsin, and but for him, the whole country, and with it the
world, would go to the dogs.
Without detracting from Yeltsin's stature, his
courage, and his charisma that have
inspired trust in the majority of the Russian people and have held them together at the time of growing hardships and
political crisis, a second Yeltsin presidency would be a dangerous
proposition. By encouraging ideological and political polarization,
Yeltsin has successfully created, especially in Western eyes, the
impression of the absence of an alternative to himself.
Yet, the Russian public seems to understand both
Yeltsin’s merits and failings. A recent survey, commissioned by U.S. News & World Report, showed that half of those polled
supported Yeltsin in his standoff with
the Supreme Soviet while 61% considered another Yeltsin term undesirable.
There is hope, then, among voters that a worthy replacement for Yeltsin
may soon be found.
Such potential leaders exist, though they are
overshadowed by Yeltsin because he prefers to have them inside his
government as deputy prime ministers rather than outside gathering votes.
Indeed, the array of Yeltsin's former and present deputy prime ministers
looks like a who’s who in the next presidential race.When the
parliamentary campaign started, these stars of Yeltsin's government
quickly expressed their willingness to shift to the legislative
branch--ostensibly to make the new parliament safer for democracy.
It was to stem this hemorraging and to insure their
loyalty to the president that the separation of powers provision,
prominent in the earlier draft of the constitution, was removed from the
final draft. Similalrly, among the key reasons why Yeltsin renegged on his
solemn promise of an early presidential election was the fear that, in the
absence of strong parties, his government would simply disintegrate as his
lieutenants metamorphosed into presidential candidates. Yet, rather than
encourage party-building, Yeltsin, as he told a group of newspaper
editors, will spend the rest of his term “finding and grooming” his
There are plenty of candidates. On the more
conservative end of the spectrum are Yurii Skokov, former head of the
Security Council, and Oleg Lobov, its current head. On the more liberal
are the deputy prime ministers--Sergei M. Shalhrai, Vladimir F. Shumeiko,
Yegor T. Gaidar, Anatoly B. Chubais--and the prime minister, Viktor S.
Chernomyrdin. It should come as no surprise that Gaidar, Shakhraim
Shumeiko, and Chubais, all except Shumeiko under the age of 40, appeared
at the top of the list of candidates from Parliament from the Democratic
Bloc and now are busy campaigning for a seat in the state duma.
One of the most promising is Yeltsin’s chief legal
brain and authority on provincial politics, Shakhrai. His Party of Russian
Unity and Accord (Provincial), which he founded, collected more signatures
than any other electoral bloc fielding candidates in the coming election,
including Yeltsin’s Russia’s Choice. In truth, Shalhrai, 37 and a
Cossack, is a conservative federalist in the best sense of these words.
His program would harmonize relations among regions and stabilize the
revolutionary reforms of Yeltsin by stressing the values of “family,
property, labor and country.”
In early October, Interfax
News Agency floated a report about
Shakhrai's dissatisfaction with "democratization at break-neck
speed." A few days ago, he gave an interview to Moscow’s Independent
Newspaper, Yeltsin’s most exacting critic. Among other things, he
said that the final draft of the constitution was top heavy and did not
grant enough autonomy to the regions. This and other similar
statements made by Shakhrai as the election aproaches have the ring of
sound bites fired by a politician running for an elective office and not
one of the President’s chief aides. Indeed, a week ago, he, along with
Gaidar, took a temporary
leave from government to devote himself fully to the campaign.
Shakhrai is a man to watch as he moves into the
forefront of his country’s new presidential and, most important,
civilized party politics. A man
who can build a real political party in post-communist Russia will work
steadily both with allies and opponents rather than stagger and lurch,
however nobly and good-naturedly, from one “last and decisive battle”
to another. God knows, the Russians have had enough of that.
Copyright © 1993 by Gregory Freidin