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The Yeltsin Legacy
 

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Yeltsin Legacy

by Leon Aron

Two days before Boris Yeltsin resigned on December 31, a retired captain in the Russian navy, Alexander Nikitin, was acquitted of espionage in a St. Petersburg courtroom and released from custody. Nikitin's alleged crime was passing information about Russian nuclear submarines to a Norwegian environmental group. The judge ruled that the suit had been brought under an ex post facto law in "direct violation of the constitution."

As far as anyone, including Nikitin's lawyers, can gather, this is the first time in Russian history that the secret police — the FSB, successor to the KGB — has been forced to release a person it had accused of treason. Indeed the mere fact that the trial was open to the public is a miracle. A five-minute sentencing before a troika of KGB officers and a bullet in the back of the head in the basement of the Lubyanka prison, or a slow death by starvation in a faraway labor camp would have been Nikitin's fate under the Soviet regime. This time, the FSB released a statement acknowledging that the ruling had been "reached on the basis of the law."

Astonishing as it is, the Nikitin case is not an exception but part of a trend. In 1998, over 100,000 lawsuits were brought by ordinary citizens against government officials for illegal administrative actions, and in 80 percent of them, the courts ruled for the plaintiffs. Since the constitution requires that all capital cases be heard by juries, and only a few Russian provinces have begun to experiment with jury trials, capital punishment has been, in effect, abolished in Russia — a country that, along with the United States, China, and South Africa, led the world in executions just a few years back. The courts also have been throwing out — by the dozen — the Army's cases against "deserters," on the ground that the Army has violated their constitutional right to alternative service. And the courts have dismissed numerous suits against foreign religious "sects" brought by local authorities under the restrictive and xenophobic Law on Religious Freedom passed by the Duma over Yeltsin's veto in 1997.

Peter Solomon of the University of Toronto traces these developments to the 1992 Law on the Status of Judges, which established life terms for judges and made the self-governing Congress of Judges the sole arbiter of judicial behavior, banning interference by state authorities. He calls the law "revolutionary."

Russia's legal revolution, virtually unnoticed in the West, is just one manifestation of the tectonic shift that took place during the eight years of the Yeltsin presidency. Boris Yeltsin shaped, inspired, led, and sustained at least three revolutions at once: a political revolution, which established some key principles and institutions of democracy (freedom of speech and of the press, freedom of political opposition, free legislative and parliamentary elections, and the separation of powers); an economic revolution, which introduced private property and a market economy; and an anti-imperial revolution, which, for the first time in history, separated the state of Russia from its empire.

All great revolutions, in the end, fall short of their initial supporters' hopes and take decades, sometimes centuries, to reach maturity. But perhaps no other great revolution has ever dismantled so crushing a legacy from the ancien regime with so little violence and ushered in a freedom so complete. The weight of the Soviet legacy, along with Yeltsin's own obvious blunders and the efforts of a well-organized and determined opposition free to work its will, account for the tortuousness of Russia's transition out of communism.

But to say that a revolution has failed to live up to its original promise is not to say that no revolution has taken place. The traditional ills of the Russian state — militarism, brutality, corruption, xenophobia, authoritarianism — have not been extinguished in Yeltsin's eight years, but the barriers erected against their recurrence are stronger now than at any time in Russian history.

That this epochal accomplishment passed largely unmentioned in the reports and analyses of Yeltsin's resignation is due, in equal measure, to Yeltsin's own contradictory persona and the peculiar predilections of those who write about him. There have been two Yeltsins in the public eye. One, Yeltsin the politician, was the avid and competent greasy-pole climber, obsessed with power and its gaudy trappings, petty, jealous of competitors' popularity, often crude and rude to subordinates, tolerant of (if not indeed complicit in) corruption. In many ways he ran the Kremlin like a Byzantine court (or a provincial party committee, where he spent 17 years), rife with intrigue, back-stabbing, favoritism, sudden firings, demotions, and promotions.

Co-existing with that Yeltsin — occasionally overlapping, sometimes clashing and retreating, but always distinct and resilient — has been Yeltsin the leader, a revolutionary and a visionary. In the fall of 1991, he, like Lincoln or de Gaulle, took over a nation in the midst of a mortal crisis and held it together. Not only did he cope with chaos and decay, but he forged, from scratch, a new state: proto-democratic, post-imperial, de militarized, decentralized, and federalized; a new proto-capitalist economic system; and a new country, post-Soviet Russia.

It is the first Yeltsin that has dominated the news — an object of almost obsessive attention by those whom the great British philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin called "glass and plastic" historians — to whose ranks I would add journalists, editorialists, and sundry experts. These sages, Berlin wrote, "regard all facts as equally interesting," and the result is "craven pedantry and blindness." Most of what Americans know about Yeltsin they have learned from the writings of the glass-and-plastic crowd, works informed by the historical awareness of a fruit fly.

When all facts are treated as equal, Yeltsin's credit card bills allegedly paid by the Swiss construction company Mabetex are the equivalent of the Treaty of Friendship he signed with independent Ukraine; his daughter's Kremlin job is as momentous as his slashing of the nuclear arsenal by 60 percent and halving of the armed forces; his drinking and "erratic behavior" are as significant as Russia's critical assistance in brokering a Serbian retreat from Kosovo and an end to NATO's air war against Yugoslavia; and the "immunity" granted him upon retirement (hardly worth the paper it is written on) is as important as the departure of the last Russian soldier from the Skrunda radar base in western Latvia in October 1999, ending almost 300 years of Russian occupation of East-Central Europe.

But history is notoriously parsimonious and does not treat all facts as equally salient. Only a few years from now, the clutter of secondary and tertiary developments, which appear all-important today, will fade from memory, and what will be left standing is the towering edifice of Yeltsin's achievement. Its fundamental elements not even professional Yeltsin-haters in Moscow and Washington can deny: Boris Yeltsin inherited a decaying, bankrupt, thoroughly militarized, and just as thoroughly corrupt Communist totalitarian empire and created the freest, most tolerant, most open state in Russian history — the first ever that is neither a monarchy nor a dictatorship. He will be remembered as the man who ended Soviet communism, dissolved the Russian empire, led the country while it coped with the enormous, painful shocks of a new economic, political, and social reality, and prevented a Communist restoration — without abrogating human rights and political liberties.

He will be remembered, as well, for forging an entirely novel national consensus on the rules of the game. As hundreds of polls of Russians, and Russian elites, across the ideological spectrum confirm, this consensus holds personal and political freedoms vital, dictatorship unacceptable, and government legitimate only if freely elected.

Great leaders do not leave under fire. De Gaulle resigned not during the 1968 crisis but 11 months later, after he had pulled France through. Yeltsin left not in August 1998 — when the ruble collapsed and the Communist press in Russia and elite press in Washington and New York were announcing the end of the "Yeltsin regime" — but 16 months later. A year ago, he was offered immunity (in exchange for surrendering most of his constitutional power to the Communist-dominated Duma) by prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, at a time when the country was reeling from the August shock and the Kremlin was extremely vulnerable. Yeltsin rejected the deal publicly and indignantly, and dared the Duma to impeach him. (The Communists, supported in the Duma by Grigory Yavlinsky's Yabloko, tried to do this and failed.) It is laughable to think that a man for whom power and politics are lifeblood — who stood up to two tank divisions in August 1991 and delivered his first speech outside the besieged parliament building in an open square after he had been warned that enemy snipers were deployed on the roofs of the high-rise buildings around him — could be bullied out of power by "ultimatums" or pushed into retirement by anyone.

With their trademark disdain for the freely expressed opinions of ordinary Russians, the glass-and-plastic experts (who for years have been telling us that Yeltsin would never leave the Kremlin, would cancel elections, would call in the military) have ignored a crucial factor in the timing of the resignation: the results of the December 19 legislative elections. The Kremlin spokesman called these elections a "peaceful revolution," and he did not exaggerate by much. For the first time since the end of the Soviet Union, pro-reform parties, blocs, and independent candidates have come close to a majority in the Duma. For the first time, all the major parties (including the Communists) have accepted the chief planks of Yeltsin's economic agenda: privatization, integration into the world economy, lower inflation, tighter budgets, and a steady reduction of state control over the economy.

As in legislative elections in any other democracy, the electoral success of the administration was not an accident. In 1999, Russia's economy is likely to post its first significant GDP growth, with industrial-sector growth as high as 8 percent. Last year, 12 million Russians traveled abroad. The incidence of car ownership has almost doubled since 1990. At the end of the Soviet regime, 1,200 new books were published; last year, there were 12,000. As Michael McFaul of the Carnegie Endowment reminds us, for 10 years pollsters have been asking Russians whether they and their families have "adjusted" to the new economic reality. Until last year, "yes" responses never exceeded 30 percent. In November, the figure was 55 percent.

At no time in the last eight years has the "de-Bolshevization of Russia" — which Boris Yeltsin embraced as his paramount goal in September 1991 — seemed so secure. Unlike Yeltsin the politician, who is old, sick, and deeply unpopular, Yeltsin the leader has retired undefeated.