Blip- free Boris isn’t the full deal

Boris Yeltsin and Rus­sia’s Demo­cratic Trans­for­ma­tion By Her­bert J. El­li­son Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton Press, 313pp, $ 59.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Francesca Bed­die

‘ LIB­ER­A­TOR’’ is the ti­tle Boris Niko­layevich Yeltsin de­serves. So con­cludes emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor Her­bert El­li­son, whose book sets out to re­store the rep­u­ta­tion of the first pres­i­dent of Rus­sia.

Most of the obit­u­ar­ists who wrote af­ter Yeltsin’s death in April would agree. But they also re­called Yeltsin the buf­foon and the drunk. Th­ese are traits El­li­son skates over. He is in­ter­ested in the demo­crat and pol­i­cy­maker, com­mit­ted to free­dom and con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity and sovereignty. He side­steps Yeltsin’s im­pul­sive per­son­al­ity. The scowl­ing bear of a man who lost two fin­gers smash­ing a hand grenade with a ham­mer, who loved to dance and drink, hardly ap­pears in El­li­son’s anal­y­sis.

Nor do some of the other blots on the Yeltsin land­scape. While El­li­son calls the wars in Chech­nya tragic, they are not ex­plained. The reader is given no sense of the bit­ter­ness that con­flict caused at home and abroad: how it gal­vanised Rus­sian moth­ers to demon­strate in the streets against send­ing their sons into bat­tle; what op­pro­brium it drew from hu­man rights ac­tivists and jour­nal­ists.

El­li­son de­tails Yeltsin’s trans­for­ma­tion from Com­mu­nist Party boss to lib­er­a­tor, show­ing how he did what Mikhail Gor­bachev could not: break out of the Soviet strait­jacket and em­brace democ­racy. It is still nec­es­sary to re­mind peo­ple in the West of Gor­bachev’s fail­ings, his blind­ness to na­tion­al­ist sen­ti­ment and re­fusal to aban­don the com­mu­nist creed. El­li­son does that in his first chap­ter. He also doc­u­ments how the revo­lu­tion of the 1990s started in a re­mark­ably or­derly fash­ion, thanks in large part to a mis­take. Those bum­bling lead­ers of the Au­gust 1991 coup failed to ar­rest Yeltsin when they had the chance. He was free to rally the masses from atop a tank. From then on Yeltsin was in charge. It was he who steered the Soviet Union to its quiet demise.

Then came the chal­lenge: to re­build the Rus­sian state, so long sub­sumed in the Soviet Union, and to find its place in the world. El­li­son ex­am­ines Yeltsin’s po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and for­eign pol­icy re­forms in sep­a­rate chap­ters. This struc­ture is the book’s flaw, for while the au­thor re­minds us from time to time that the re­form process did not hap­pen con­sec­u­tively, by treat­ing it this way he fails to con­vey the headi­ness of it all, the an­ar­chy that reigned and the ex­tent of the pop­u­lar dis­il­lu­sion­ment that set in.

El­li­son is stead­fast in his ar­gu­ment that Yeltsin’s blue­print was al­ways for a con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy and a mar­ket econ­omy. But in 1993 Yeltsin had to re­sort to force to over­come op­po­si­tion, us­ing tanks to dis­solve the Rus­sian par­lia­ment. That con­fronta­tion took 178 lives. It also saw Rus­sia be­come a pres­i­den­tial democ­racy. Only thus could Yeltsin counter his po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents for, un­like his hand- picked suc­ces­sor Vladimir Putin, the lib­er­a­tor could not build a par­lia­men­tary bloc to sup­port him.

Some of the flaws in the Yeltsin pres­i­dency are ac­knowl­edged. El­li­son records how Yeltsin mo­bilised the me­dia and dis­persed se­ri­ous money to his back­ers to shore up his po­si­tion in the 1996 elec­tions.

This com­pro­mised Yeltsin’s rep­u­ta­tion as the cham­pion of the free press and saw him en­ter the murky world of Rus­sian cor­rup­tion. That murk­i­ness was ev­ery­where in the pri­vati­sa­tion process in­sti­gated un­der Yeltsin. El­li­son ex­plains the process well but glosses over the in­equities caused by this as­pect of trans­form­ing the so­cial­ist econ­omy. More needed to be said about how ‘‘ shock ther­apy’’ re­sulted in or­di­nary Rus­sians en­dur­ing cir­cum­stances worse than those of the Great De­pres­sion.

El­li­son’s re­cur­ring theme is that Yeltsin could not re­alise his am­bi­tions be­cause of the im­pla­ca­ble op­po­si­tion from com­mu­nists and na­tion­al­ists to ev­ery as­pect of re­struc­tur­ing the econ­omy and to build­ing demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions.

An­other ob­sta­cle, the er­ratic na­ture of Yeltsin’s rule, emerges only in­ci­den­tally.

The chap­ter on for­eign pol­icy shows why Rus­sia still mat­ters in the world. El­li­son makes a strong case for more sen­si­tive treat­ment of Rus­sia. He shows how West­ern ac­tions, such as the east­ward ex­pan­sion of NATO, failed to un­der­stand the en­trenched Rus­sian sense of it­self as a great power.

The anal­y­sis of Rus­sia in Asia re­veals the de­vel­op­ment of a new re­la­tion­ship with China, based on re­duced mil­i­tary ten­sion, arms ex­ports, en­ergy co- op­er­a­tion and the shared ob­jec­tive to counter US dom­i­na­tion as a sin­gle su­per­power. A gap in the chap­ter is an ex­am­i­na­tion of Rus­sia’s re­newed en­gage­ment in the Mid­dle East, spear­headed by Yevgeny Pri­makov, who was for­eign min­is­ter and prime min­is­ter in the sec­ond Yeltsin repub­lic.

El­li­son set out to counter the ten­dency in re­cent years to ig­nore the ‘‘ mam­moth act of lib­er­a­tion’’ Yeltsin un­der­took. In do­ing so, he has not said enough about the things that marred Yeltsin’s pres­i­dency. Per­haps the rea­son for this my­opia is El­li­son’s de­vo­tion to in­still­ing in his stu­dents a love for the peo­ple and re­gions of the for­mer Soviet Union. His book will help them un­der­stand more about pol­i­cy­mak­ing in the Yeltsin era but it is not the whole story of this mav­er­ick Rus­sian. Francesca Bed­die worked at the Aus­tralian em­bassy in Moscow dur­ing the early 1990s.

Hic­cups: The flaws of Boris Yeltsin’s rule are glossed over

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