mercoledì 25 aprile 2007

The devil on Yeltsin’s shoulder won the battle

Boris Yeltsin’s most important moment was not what he did in August 1991, when he stood on top of a tank outside the White House, but what he did not do when he took power. Yeltsin declined to wipe out the other side. For the first time in Russian history the new ruler did not eliminate the losers to consolidate power. What’s more, they were free to participate in political life.

Out of nowhere, the career bureaucrat literally leapt to the front lines armed with an instinct for breaking down barriers. And yet Yeltsin’s inconsistency was boundless. He allowed regional leaders to have more power but dived into the tragic war in Chechnya. He waged war against privileges for the elites but later opened the floodgates for the oligarchs to loot Russia. He promoted free elections, our first and last, but then hand-picked his successor.

His presidency was always a struggle between these democratic instincts and his lifelong grounding in the nomenklatura. On one shoulder the angel of freedom and democracy whispered into his ear about elections and capitalism. On the other shoulder the nomenklatura devil whispered about control and favours. In the end, the devil won out with the appointment of Vladimir Putin.

Yeltsin’s second term was a nightmare on almost every front. He had outlived his moment by 1996 and it would have been best for a democratically elected successor to have followed him at that point. But missed opportunities were inevitable considering the magnitude of the changes and problems he confronted. It’s still too early to analyse what Yeltsin could have done better, but it is simple to compare how things have gone since Putin took over in 2000.

There was chaos, but Yeltsin never attacked individual freedoms. Putin has built his entire presidency to be the opposite of the Yeltsin years, with a great deal of success. The entire Government has been brought under Putin’s direct control. The parliament attempted to impeach Yeltsin at one point; now it is a puppet show. The corruption of the oligarchs has moved inside the Kremlin walls where it has expanded to fantastic levels. The media, which was free to criticise Yeltsin, is entirely at the service of the Putin administration. The economy is where we see the biggest difference, although most of the credit must go to the simple fact that during Putin’s tenure the price of oil went from $10 a barrel to nearly $80. Even with these untold energy riches the average Russian sees little improvement in his living standards.

Boris Yeltsin was a real person; he had virtues and vices in his flesh and blood. Now we’ve exchanged that for a shadow. If only in those final days the angel on Yeltsin’s shoulder had whispered a little louder. Instead of a KGB lieutenant-colonel dragging the country back into a police state we might have had time to realise that a little chaos is a good thing.

Garry Kasparov, The times, april 25, 2007