THE PHOENIX: Yeltsin and the Future of Russian Leadership



originally published in the

Harvard International Review, Volume XXI, Issue 1 (Winter 1999)


Photograph by GWENDOLYN STEWART c. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

In these troubled times, an ailing Boris Yeltsin seems the almost too-perfect symbol for an ailing Russia. This is not how the second term of the first Russian president was supposed to turn out. Back in 1996, when the Communists under Gennady Zyuganov appeared poised to take over the presidency (they had already won a plurality in the Duma a half-year before), the ultimate rallying cry was "Better a sick Yeltsin than a healthy Zyuganov." The Communists, it was thought, could do positive harm; Yeltsin at least could hold the country together as the fruits of market democracy ripened. Should worse come to worst, there were constitutional provisions for choosing a successor now in place; the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, would take over for three months as acting president, and then elections would be called. There was also already at least one other obvious candidate with a proven track record of winning elections, Moscow's Mayor Yury Luzhkov. But the hope was that the reinvigorated Yeltsin, who had toured Russia during the election campaign, would move the country forward if given four more years.

It seemed that important battles had been won, even if the victories had been paid for at a bitter price. After the confrontation with the Supreme Soviet had ended in the shelling of the White House, a post-Soviet constitution had finally been hammered out and ratified by popular referendum in December 1993. The main lines of development for the new political system were clear: Russia was to be not a parliamentary but a presidential republic too much so, it was almost certain. The war in Chechnya, fought in the name of saving the Federation, had been brought to an uneasy cease-fire with the prospect of an ending within sight. The long-promised economic upturn had still not materialized, at least not in the officially registered economy, but hyperinflation had been wrung out of the system. Now it was time to show, in a fully contested election, that Russians had moved beyond communism, away from their past, and were still willing to bet on the future.

Then Boris Yeltsin failed to show up at his regular polling place on July 3, 1996, the day of the crucial second and final round of the election, but won with fifty-four percent of the votes anyway. Two months later he made the unprecedented public announcement of his need for heart surgery and on November 5, 1996, he underwent a quintuple bypass surgery. The operation was declared a success, but the presidents health and the political life of Russia have been on a roller coaster ride ever since.

The Making of Yeltsin

As obvious and devastating as the Russian crisis appears today, it is necessary to place it in context, to reflect on how much has changed in just a decade.

Ten years ago Boris Yeltsin was a failed Soviet politician, drummed out of the ruling Politburo and passing the time in a make-work job as deputy chief of the State Committee on Construction. Ten years ago the Soviet Union was indisputably the other superpower, and the Reagan administration had committed vast amounts of American resources in an effort to close what it saw as a window of vulnerability to the Evil Empire.

At home, the Soviet Union was entering the heady days of democratization, centered on a new Congress of Peoples Deputies, Gorbachevs attempt to give the country a meaningful albeit circumscribed parliament. For the first time in more than 70 years something resembling real elections were in prospect, and Boris Yeltsin seized his chance to make a new, popularly-based political career. Andrei Sakharov, the physicist turned dissident, made a fateful if somewhat reluctant decision to ally with this former provincial apparatchik. He and the other liberal Moscow deputies ran orientation sessions for like-minded incoming deputies. Yeltsin was open to new opportunities and new programs after his dismissal from Gorbachevs circle, and some of that orientation has remained with him.

Originally from Sverdlovsk in the Urals, where Europe meets Asia, the young Boris Yeltsin was athletic and smart. His peasant parents had managed to finish only four years of school and some after-work literacy classes between them; he did well to be graduated from the Ural Polytechnic Institute as a civil engineer. Though Boris Yeltsin was a beneficiary of the Soviet drive for industrialization, he made his career not in the dominant military-industrial complex, but in a consumer-oriented field. He ran a large city trust putting up pre-fab housing blocks before switching over in his late thirties to straight Party work. By the time he was 45, he was boss of his native province. He was such a hard-charging type that he had already had an attack of heart trouble severe enough to send him crashing to the floor a full decade earlier. What a different career he might have had if there had been a Rhodes scholarships for Russians!

The same dedication and aggressive commitment to work had brought him to the attention of the Center when Mikhail Gorbachev was looking for perestroika-worthy leaders. In December 1985, Yeltsin was appointed First Secretary of Moscow. After less than two years in this high visibility post in the capital, he made the first of several outsized gambles that were to mark the rest of his career. At the Central Committee Plenum called to prepare for the celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the October Revolution, Yeltsin rose to complain about the slow pace of perestroika, and offered his own resignation. In response, the Party fired him. By volunteering to give up power in the name of reform, Yeltsin became a martyr for many. He became first the peoples tribune and then the president of Russia. But he paid an enormous price for this break with his past, physically and psychologically.

In May 1990, Yeltsin was elected to the highest post in Russia, Chair of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. Until the end of the Soviet Union barely more than a year and a half later, Boris Yeltsin was engaged in a strangely interdependent dance of statesmanship and gamesmanship with Mikhail Gorbachev, at times antagonistically competitive and at times cooperative. The result was an outcome that surprised nearly everyone: Russia peacefully let the empire go. One major theme of the liberals with whom Yeltsin had allied himself was the need to encourage real sovereignty for the constituent republics of the USSR; Yeltsin made this his platform, engaging in bilateral negotiations with the leaders of the other republics. In the end, with a Russian taking the lead, the USSR was divided up without conflict.

Russia and Reform

If reforming the Soviet Union was never going to be easy, reforming a rump Russia posed its own perils. Throughout the last seven years, Russia has most often been in a state of what Aleksandr Lebed has called shaky stability, punctuated by periodic upheavals. With economic liberalization as their centerpiece, the Yeltsin reforms began immediately after the breakup, but without the expected major stabilization fund from the International Monetary Fund. The resultant hardships gave Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov and Vice-President Aleksandr Rutskoi an incentive to oppose Yeltsin - a struggle which ended in the bloody October Events of 1993. A serious effort to contain hyperinflation was not made until after the shock of Black Tuesday one year later. The stability hard won in the economic sphere was undone in the war in Chechnya, which began in December 1994 and was not brought to a negotiated end until after the elections of 1996. Parliamentary elections in December 1993 and December 1995 afforded opportunities for protest votes, bringing first the ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and then the Communists to prominence. The president tacked in response to these outcomes, shedding deputy prime ministers and ministers, even the foreign minister, as seemed necessary, but kept to his own central course and balancing act. Throughout it all, he remained open to criticism. His enemies were never silenced.

Yeltsin's domestic and foreign policies were linked. If political liberalism had been the program of the reformers out of power in the USSR, economic neoliberalism was the doctrine of choice in the West as Yeltsin was coming to power. After watching Gorbachev flounder so long, unable to make a clear choice for fundamental economic reform, Yeltsin boldly pinned his hopes on the dominant wisdom of the day. Until the default and devaluation of August 17, 1998, the Washington consensus maintained its hold on his administrations approach to the economy, despite its zigzags and corruption. Ironically, it was to be the Russian crisis, compounding the Asian ones, which began to open cracks in the global monetarist consensus.

The original Gaidar government had started out smartly trying to break the stranglehold of the military-industrial-complex on the economy, and the quest for partnership with the United States in particular dictated an initial foreign policy that made Russian nationalists accuse Yeltsin of taking orders from the Americans. President George Bush, however, saw his country as having more will than wallet in 1992 and, in an election year, not even much will to truly embrace the fledgling Russian democracy as an ally. Nevertheless, he was keen to lock in nuclear arms cuts, and did achieve the signing of SALT II just before he left office. As the global political order changed to Russia's disadvantage, the parliament saw the mandated reductions as a threat to what remained of their country's military might, and balked.

This reluctance was part of a larger change, as the early earnest openness and idealism about the possibilities of a post-Soviet Russia faded, and the realities of the decline in Russias international position set in. Arms sales abroad increased in importance as they proved to be among the few industrial goods exportable to the global economy. Russia came to be regarded as little more than a regional power.

The post-Soviet space itself was a source of knotty problems. Much of the territory in what were now independent states had been part of Russia's national identity for decades or even centuries. Yeltsin had been in the vanguard in granting recognition to the other republics, especially the Baltics, but the practicalities of working out the soft divorce were perplexing. Russia was seen as a useful milk cow providing subsidies, especially in energy supplies, but an arrogant Big Brother when it expected special consideration in return. Russian forces did intervene in the Commonwealth of Independent States in Tajikistan, Abkhazia and elsewhere, but Russian troops withdrew from the Baltics as well as Eastern Europe.

The End of a Presidency

How will the first Russian presidency end, short of the president's death? The Constitutional Court has determined that Yeltsin will not have a third term. But will he manage to hold on to his office for the rest of his term, scheduled to end in mid-2000? With the cooperation or connivance of some, most, or all of the Russian political elite, he might just manage it. Or he could instead resign ahead of time, more or less voluntarily; he could be impeached; or he could be forced out on medical grounds. But then how will his successor be chosen? By popular elections, as ordered by the Constitution? Or by a Constitutional Assembly or some other elite electoral college mechanism, presumably heavily weighted with parliamentarians? Not surprisingly, the speakers of both houses of the Federal Assembly and the leader of the largest fraction in the parliament, the Communists, find this latter approach very attractive. Elections cost too much money, they say, and just happen to be less likely to favor them. Finally there are the darker scenarios, mostly centered on coups of one sort or another. There seem to be four possibilities: soft resignation, resignation, removal for medical disability, and impeachment.

The situation in Russia today can more or less be described as soft resignation. The president is openly portrayed as a figurehead by Russia media. In this scenario, Boris Yeltsin stays in office and shows up for summits, even if they sometimes have to be held in the hospital. Officially, the president is still even planning for further summits abroad. This has some merit as long as there is a chance of recovery: Yeltsin's past track record as the other Comeback Kid has some nervously looking over their shoulders even now to see if he can pull it off yet again. On December 7, 1998, he suddenly came out of the hospital and into the Kremlin long enough to sack several of his own top aides, including his chief of staff, Valentin Yumashev. Nominally designed to energize the fight against corruption and political extremism(anti-Semitism and communist restoration), this dramatic gesture aimed to demonstrate that the president was still in charge. He did manage to get himself discharged from the hospital after this bout of pneumonia, but as recurrent illnesses succeed one another so closely as to qualify as chronic and apparently debilitating, the option of hanging on for eighteen more months becomes progressively harder to sustain. The question becomes whether having this president in place, in this condition, is less destabilizing than an overt vacancy and concomitant struggle for power.

In Yevgeny Primakov, the Foreign Minister turned Prime Minister, the system has at least thrown up a plausible placeholder, and one with whom other world leaders are already familiar. There are potential drawbacks to the present situation, however, especially when authoritative decisions are called for. Although several of the presidents subordinates have announced that many of the presidents powers are being ceded to the prime minister, and the presidents occasional appearances on television subliminally convey the message of his removal from hands-on work, there is still an air of impermanence to the arrangement. It is not the same as maintaining General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev at the top of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and trusting that no one would dare to question his authority.

Foreign affairs, which were the presidents special province and enthusiasm, have become especially tricky. Yeltsin recently failed to attend a banquet given in the honor of a visiting Japanese delegation, one of whose members announced that their missing host looked like a robot. The new German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, disinclined to imitate his predecessors concentration on his relationship with his Russian summit partner, allowed himself to sneer at sauna politics. Jiang Zemin was not so publicly gauche, but the Chinese were said to be studiously attempting to divine which leader would rule in the post-Yeltsin era. In the end, a visibly ailing president just makes Russia look weak and diminished in the eyes of the other powers, almost the last thing the country needs at the moment.

Given the severity of the current situation, it is possible that Yeltsin will be induced to resign by a combination of threats(impeachment) and inducements (his own golden parachute). The Russians call the latter providing social guarantees, and the possibility of such being offered has been bruited about for some time now. Most likely such a package would include a pension, a dacha, bodyguards, and a promise of no prosecution, including immunity for his family. One variation has Yeltsin, like Pinochet, being made a Senator for life to insure the freedom from prosecution, a promise perhaps somewhat devalued now.

Yeltsin's health may yet provide a pretext for forcing him from office. Article 92, Section 2 of the Russian Constitution declares that the president ceases the exercise of his powers early in the event of his resignation, persistent inability to exercise his powers for health reasons, or removal from office. What qualifies as medical grounds for removal, and who makes the judgment, are questions as yet undetermined, but now moving toward a possible resolution. The Constitutional Court has agreed to meet on January 15, 1999, to take up these issues. To increase the pressure in the meantime, the Duma on December 2, 1998, passed anon-binding resolution demanding a report on Yeltsins health. The attempt to counter accusations of persistent medical disability by putting the president on television in the condition in which he has been seen recently seems rather more likely to convince the public of the opposite. But an exit on medical grounds would probably not suit the dignity of the president and his family.

Finally, it is possible that Yeltsin will simply be impeached. Duma impeachment commission hearings have been underway for some time and are scheduled to be completed by years end. Five counts have been under consideration and three have already been approved by the commission: signing the Soviet Union away in Belovezhskaya Pushcha in December 1991, firing on the parliament in October 1993, and launching war in Chechnya in December 1994. The other two charges, the deliberate destruction of the Russian military and genocide against the Russian people, are not so likely to be carried forward to the Duma itself. Impeachment itself is difficult, designedly so. The president is supposed to be removed from office on charges only of treason or other grave crimes, and two thirds of both houses of parliament and both the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court must concur in the verdict. Impeachment may not actually be necessary to drive the president from office. The threat of it may suffice, especially when combined with positive inducements.

If these are the main means available, the other part of the puzzle is the timing. Officially, the presidents term is to last until mid-2000; any early departure triggers a three-month acting presidency for the prime minister, with a requirement for elections to be held at the end of the period. There seems to be a palpable disinclination to rush the date, with motives ranging from waiting for better weather or economic conditions to a wish to push through some means of picking the president that avoid a popular vote. Intertwined with the question in the minds of some politicians is the upcoming election of the Duma in December 1999. One option that has been put on the table by Aleksandr Shokhin, the head of the generally pro-government Our Home Is Russia faction in the Duma, is simultaneous early elections in September 1999 for both the president and the parliament. So far, this option does not seem to have been met with widespread enthusiasm. With no discernible consensus having yet coalesced, and with Yeltsins reputation for obstinacy acting as a residual deterrent, the presidential side has floated its own counter-offers, including talk that the president will now concentrate on constitutional reforms, including even the re-institution of the vice-presidency. Primakov as vice-president could presumably guarantee the remainder of the allotted term, and not just three months. One way or another, change is coming.

Russia after Yeltsin

Trying to predict the next president of Russia a year and a half out is at least as problematic as trying to do the same for the United States. But there is now something of a stable of presidential hopefuls, and, as we have seen, the election may come sooner than mid-2000.

Yevgeny Primakov, the Prime Minister and frequent stand-in for the president, is still enjoying something of a honeymoon, often topping political trust-and-popularity polls. But he disclaims any interest in running for president, using his advancing age as an excuse. Keeping any such ambitions hidden is also useful in diverting the wrath of the incumbent as well as would-be competitors onto himself. He has yet to announce a real economic plan, contenting himself with platitudes about building a socially-oriented market economy with the participation of the state. After such a prolonged depression in Russian industrial production, perhaps he is danger of presiding over another bout of hyperinflation.

Yury Luzhkov is the Moscow boss Boris Yeltsin would have liked to have been. He made the capital into a showcase investment magnet; that is both his glory and his burden. The rest of the country has a love-hate relationship with Moscow, and his middle-class base suffered badly in the August crash. But his good boss image resonates in the populace, and he has attempted to build up a nationalist base outside the capital. He even flirted briefly with an alliance with the Communists. Asserting Russian rights in Crimea, now part of Ukraine, may win votes at home, but risks destabilizing the neighborhood. An air of uncertainty also surrounds his criticism of the privatization deals made under the Yeltsin administration but outside of his aegis; might he try to undo some of them? Still, there is a noticeable bandwagon effect in his favor. Even former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, whose own standing has declined so sharply, has spoken of joining forces with him.

Aleksandr Lebed promises a firm hand with a vengeance. The former general positions himself as the anti-corruption outsider, but seems to have no stable political orientation. His brief stint as national security adviser was his only civilian government post. He is finally getting political executive experience, having been elected governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai this past spring; whether he will make a success of the endeavor is still an open question. He prides himself on his independence, and his unpredictability worries the Russian political establishment. But there are rumors that famed oligarch Boris Berezovsky helped fund his campaign. And sometimes he is suspected by Russians of being the American candidate, or at least, the American favorite.

Even though he has already lost once in a head-to-head race with Boris Yeltsin, Gennady Zyuganov has to be counted among the contenders. Somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of the populace identify with the communists: the organizational base Zyuganov commands (the half-million-strong Communist Party of the Russian Federation) is easily the largest in the country, and he leads the largest fraction in the Duma. However, he is not without challenges from within his own party, and not just from the more radical, less electable extremists. The Communist Speaker of the Duma, Gennady Seleznov, is talking about running for president himself. Having the Duma vote to reinstall the statue of Iron Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka-KGB, is either a gamble that the crisis will ultimately radicalize the population, or a response to the party base, or both. The impeachment process is in their hands.

Grigory Yavlinsky is trying to capitalize on an anti-corruption crusade as well, but from the side of the clean democrat. He has never met an offer from the Yeltsin administration that he thought worthy of bringing him from opposition to active participation in running the country. He did come in fourth in the last presidential election, and his Yabloko party is one of only four to break the five percent barrier and win a place in the Duma. The party is said to be increasing its organizational base in the country, and Yavlinsky himself is the top-ranking democrat/reformer in the polls, former Nizhny-Novgorod governor Boris Nemtsov having dropped precipitously after his service in the national government.

Coming in fifth in 1996 visibly deflated the clown prince of ultranationalism, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and he seems to be casting about for other possibilities. He has talked of offering himself as somebody else's prime minister, and even of running for a governors seat. But he still commands one of the four parties in the Duma, and occupies his special niche on the Russian political scene, even after wholesale poaching on the nationalist front by other contenders.

So far, in spite of trial balloons about presidential selection by other than popular ballot, the main focus of the political class does seem to be fixed firmly on the forthcoming elections to both the parliament and the presidency. Ten years ago, any sort of real elections was barely more than a glimmer in Mikhail Gorbachevs plans for democratization. Now, a set of distinctly post-Soviet political institutions, however imperfect or warped, is in place. It remains to be seen whether the present economic crisis can finally break the legendary patience and the spectacular coping mechanisms of the Russian people.

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GWENDOLYN STEWART is both a photojournalist and a political scientist specializing in political leadership in Russia, China, and the U.S.   A former Bunting (Radcliffe) Fellow, she is an Associate (and former Post-DoctoralFellow) of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard, as well as an Associate in Research of the Harvard Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.   For the Fairbank Center she co-founded and co-chairs the China Current Events Workshop, a forum for examining pressing issues in Greater China.   Her Harvard Ph.D. dissertation (SicTransit) dealt with the role of the leaders of the republics, especially Boris Yeltsin, in the breakup of the Soviet Union.   She is currently writing RUSSIA REDUX, the story of Russia under Yeltsin and Putin, part political analysis, part travel-memoir:  Imagine wandering over the largest country on earth, not in the train of a railroad, but in the train of one of the most powerful and contradictory men on earth.   Or all by yourself.




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An exhibition of a quarter-century of the photography of Gwendolyn Stewart entitled "HERE BE GIANTS" was held at Harvard.
Coming:   HERE BE GIANTS the book.

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