Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin

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Naveed Aman Khan

THE promise of democratic reform for long suffering country Russia, raised by Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, got derailed somewhere. Gorbachev faltered and Boris Yeltsin won power in 1991 as the champion of true democratisation, only to see his democratic efforts undone by Vladimir Putin after he assumed the Russian presidency in 2000. Why did Yeltsin select a man like Putin as his successor, and how was Putin able to dismantle Yeltsin’s putative democracy? The answer is that the high-water mark of democratisation had already been reached under Gorbachev and that Russia’s prospects for democracy were reversed under Yeltsin as he and his entourage strove to consolidate their power. In this light, the choice of Putin was a natural one, and the new president merely followed the course set during the tumultuous years of his predecessor. Did Russia lost in transition? This important question is still there. Under Gorbachev, Russia had an opportunity to take the social democratic path of Western Europe today, it is neither social nor democratic.
When Gorbachev won the Politburo’s designation as General Secretary in 1985, he thought he could sweep away the evils of Stalinism by rekindling the original spirit of the Russian Revolution that is the radical phase of the revolution, with its socialist choice to end domination by the landlords and capitalists and defend the welfare of the people. Starting with restructuring and transparency, Gorbachev ended up eradicating not only Stalinist tyranny and bureaucracy but also the Leninist Party dictatorship and Marxist ideology ushered in by that same Revolution. Unfortunately, his democratising reforms unleashed the centrifugal force of nationalism within the Soviet that is, Russian empire as well as the bottled up greed of the officials who used Perestroika to convert the state enterprises they controlled into private property. Enter here the hard-line plotters of August 1991, who put Gorbachev under house arrest in the hope of saving the union of Soviet Republics? That was when Yeltsin, by this time President of the largest constituent part of the (erstwhile) Soviet Union, the Russian Federation, stood on a tank in Moscow in front of his headquarters in the White House seat of the Russian Parliament, the Supreme Soviet of the Republic to shout defiance of the coup, thereby assuring its collapse.
Maybe Gorbachev’s reform project was doomed from the outset, given the economic difficulties and ethnic minority grievances in the Soviet Union that he inherited. Maybe, as so many people have argued in hindsight, the Communist system could not be reformed and could only be demolished by revolution. Not surprisingly, this is the opinion of Yeltsin’s chief demolition expert, Yegor Gaidar, in ‘Collapse of an Empire’. When Gorbachev defanged the Communist Party bureaucracy and abolished central planning, he liquidated the machinery that had driven the Soviet economy without putting anything in its place. Russian economists who had been imbibing Western theory in their spare time wanted to install a free market system, though neither they nor their Western mentors kept in mind that modern market institutions had developed over many generations. Among the utopians pushing shock therapy, Gaidar stood out: he was a clever young Communist Party intellectual and who converted from orthodox Marxism to orthodox Milton Friedmanism, hitched his fortunes to Yeltsin and found himself acting prime minister of Russia upon Yeltsin’s liquidation of the Union while Yeltsin kept for himself the nominal titles of prime minister and president.The USSR suffered the same ethnic fissures as the old Russian empire and that those cracks deepened as economic troubles worsened. The dissolution of the Union was inevitable.
Acknowledged that alcoholism had marred his presidency. Stubborn, overbearing, self assured, irresistible, a human engine without brakes. The first President Bush thought Yeltsin a wild man. When in the fall of 1993 the opposition defied his unconstitutional dissolution of the Russian Supreme Soviet, he ordered tanks to shell the White House, the same building he had defended two years earlier. Gorbachev pales in comparison. Yeltsin, I would say, was a man animated more by personal rancor than by any coherent ideology. He was happy to exploit the fires of nationalism and greed to destroy Gorbachev, and with him Russia’s nascent social-democratic experiment. He was addicted to insulting people and bossing them around. A habit naturally cultivated in his early career in the Communist Party apparatus. And he was jealous of any popular subordinate, a weakness that prompted the abrupt dismissal of Yevgeny Primakov, a wily, seasoned ex-spy and arguably the best of Yeltsin’s five prime ministers. He broke the Soviet Union apart in December 1991 to nullify Gorbachev’s president. These moves met with little resistance by this time, most Russians were yearning for the sort of stability that they eventually gained under President Vladimir Putin. Yeltsin’s selection of Putin to be his successor as the biggest puzzle of his career, undoing much of what he presumably stood fo. Yeltsin’s vaunted intuition let him down. Yet this is not such a puzzle if one puts aside assumptions about Yeltsin’s embrace of democratic principles and examines the Putin appointment in the context of Russia’s political journey through the 1990s and Yeltsin’s precarious mental state at the decade’s end. Putin was just one in the parade of prime ministers passing through the revolving door of Yeltsin’s government in 1998-99 as the ailing but rancorous president fired one after another. Given the nature of Yeltsin’s personality and the circumstances of his departure from office, it is easy to see why the transition to Putin was neither an abrupt change of course nor a carefully orchestrated coronation. Putin’s difference from Yeltsin appealed to most Russians: Putin was consistent, stern, steady, a leader who brought certainty to a country constantly thrown off balance by Yeltsin’s erratic behaviour. Paradoxically, the popular Putin is a distinctly un-Russian type. What today is happening in Pakistan needs to be viewed in the same perspective.
— The writer is political analyst based in Islamabad.

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