Yeltsin’s legacy – 10 years on

When the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, declared his resignation hours before the year 2000 began, not only did he thus close his own rich political career, but also ended a whole era in modern Russian history.

His successor – Russia’s current and then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – took over the country with a 5-year-old bloodletting conflict in the Caucasus, a stagnating economy and an uncertain attitude coming from the West.

A decade on, Russia has changed in many ways. What has stayed and what hass gone? And what foundations which were laid during the Yeltsin era proved to be useful nowadays?

The 1990’s, during which Boris Yeltsin served both of his presidential terms, have been described in many different ways – from chaotic and turbulent to liberal and reformist. But if there was one description fitting best – those were the times of hope for post-Soviet Russia. Hope for a new, better life and for new, democratic values.

One of those was practically immediately felt in the mass media sphere. The number of TV channels, newspapers and radio stations increased dramatically, compared to Soviet times. Such a thing as an opposition press also established itself. Vitaliy Yaroshevskiy, now deputy editor-in-chief of the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, says that even though the media wasn’t completely free back then, it was still the first step towards the free press. And the hands of journalists were practically loose in 1990s, as they could say whatever they felt.

“We – as opposition press – had much easier access to government officials for interviews than now. We were open in criticizing Yeltsin for starting the war in Chechnya. He had been lambasted all the time by the press, but, surprisingly, he had been saying that he would protect us – journalists. None of those are present nowadays,” Yaroshevskiy says.

One of Russia’s best-known employees – journalist Anna Politkovskaya – was killed on the doorstep of her apartment in November 2006. That – along with more journalists who have died in the line of duty since Yeltsin’s era – has made many media workers think that their work has become dangerous in Russia. Just as many foreign media lashed out at Russian leadership for what they described as “strangling the freedom of the press”. However, well-known journalist Nikolay Svanidze – who headed one of Russia’s major TV stations in the 1990s – speaks of another danger, also gravely serious according to him – which was typical for the post-Soviet media in Yeltsin’s Russia:

“Most of the media back then was controlled by wealthy tycoons – or oligarchs. They often put their financial interests above those of their audience; they embarked on media wars against each other and – at times – collaborated against the Kremlin. They had so much influence that they even forced decisions to change governments. It’s scary to think of what else they could have done. Such dangerous dependence of the media on interests of oligarchs was ceased by Putin”.

Yeltsin’s radical economic policies were – and still are – heavily criticized. Shock therapy policy and privatization were meant to transit the country to market economy, but, in the end, left the country running poor. However, Yevgeny Yasin, the former Russian Minister for the Economy under Boris Yeltsin and currently a research director at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, says there was no way to avoid pain in the transit period.

"The reforms were absolutely urgent and needed. Yes, they could be pursued slightly milder, but that wouldn’t change the overall perception of them in the society. Any person, who was close to those decisions and understood what was actually happening in the country, would tell you the same thing. The reforms first provided the country with free market and private property and then gave all the necessary impulses for the development of market economy, which exists until now – tax system, budget system, banks and so on."

However, these very changes led to many entrepreneurs becoming extremely wealthy in a very short period of time, earning themselves a collective name – oligarchs. As the country was striving towards a market economy, it was extremely easy for them – with their connections, that is – to get just about every sphere of industry and production under their control. At times, not in a very legal way – some of them were criminal bosses who achieved vast wealth by acquiring state assets very cheaply. At the same time, Yasin says, oligarchs are always there at the stage of the primary accumulation of capital.

“At such periods, the so-called oligarchs are inevitable. When people get opportunities to accumulate capital and get rent in the bottlenecks of the undeveloped emerging market economy, it inevitably leads to the drastic stratification of society. As a matter of fact, if you want your economy to be based on private capital, not on the state one, the capital needs to be concentrated in order to then pass over to the investment phase of development. That means, though, that very few individuals get enormously rich, the rest of the population are not able to exploit the situation and either remain on their level or get poorer, not willing to risk and not knowing how to run businesses.”

The overwhelming majority of ordinary people, though, are no experts in economic theory, so when Yeltsin’s second presidential term was coming to a close, the oligarchs became extremely unpopular with the Russian public. Many blamed them for the economic turmoil. Moreover, the oligarchs’ influence was so strong in the country that, some say, it was oligarchs who brought Yeltsin – who by then barely stood any chance of being re-elected – to power again in 1996.

High inflation in early 1990’s, the financial turmoil of 1998, bloodshed in Chechnya – when Putin came to power, Russia’s economy was in tatters. In a rather short space of time, though, Putin managed to distance big business away from politics and re-structure the economy, and Russia has started experiencing vast economic growth. In 1999, the country’s GDP stood at US$300 billion, a decade later, it is 5 times that. According to economist Yevgeny Yasin, it is to a certain extent thanks to the continuation of Yeltsin’s economic policy.

“One of the main goals of Putin’s governance is political stabilization, which always was and still is a vital condition for further economic development. Secondly, Putin actually kept continuity of Yeltsin’s economic course, maintaining the same liberal rhetoric and keeping many liberally-oriented figures, such as German Gref or Aleksey Kudrin on the key governing positions,” believes Yasin.

Another difference of the two eras was the foreign policy. Analysts admit that the international goals of Yeltsin and Putin have been the same: to resurrect Russia as a major player in the international arena after a period of major concessions to the West in the 1990s. It is only the methods which differed. While Yeltsin pushed for Moscow’s recognition as an important voice in global decision-making by entering different organizations like the G8 and the UN Security Council (a possibility of Russia joining NATO was also discussed back then), there has been very little progress towards membership in alliances of any sort since 1999.

Political analyst and Editor-in-Chief of the “Russia in Global Affairs” magazine Fedor Lukyanov sums it up:

“During Putin’s presidency, Russia has returned as a serious international force. It is being reckoned with and it is being listened to. But I would say that Yeltsin’s foreign policy was a little bit more effective in terms of price-quality comparison. He managed to achieve big success with much fewer resources”.

Many of the successes at the international level took place alongside serious domestic tensions. The splash of criminal and terrorist activity in Chechnya in the 1990s was a serious threat to Russia’s integrity with some parts of the country thinking of going AWOL.

But political analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov says that threats of separatism thrived from malfunctioning legislation in the 1990s:

“The Chechen separatist movement was sending shockwaves across the country. Besides, a third of all laws in the regions were not correspondent with the federal law. Apart from ending the war in Chechnya, Putin also introduced a system of presidential envoys into Russia’s regions and now legal differences amount to only 2 percent nationwide. This, to a large extent, kept the country in one piece”.

After all, 10 years is not too long a period to make ultimate judgments both about Yeltsin himself and about his era. Historians and analysts still vary markedly in their comparisons of Yeltsin’s Russia and what came after.

However, despite all the ebbs and flows of his era that historians speak of, many agree: Russia’s first president definitely laid the foundations for many advantages that the country enjoys nowadays. Even if they were not something he planned or expected.

Boris Yeltsin passed away on April 23rd, 2007. Tens of thousands flocked to Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow to bid their farewells.

Aleksey Yaroshevsky, RT