Foreign Policy Research Institute
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January 18, 2000

Harvey Sicherman, Ph.D., is president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a former aide to three U.S. secretaries of state.


By Harvey Sicherman

On December 31, 1999, a slow speaking, contrite Boris Yeltsin resigned as President of Russia, ringing down the curtain on his own faltering performance. He appointed in his place his Prime Minister of six months, Vladimir Putin. After nine years, two wars, two elections, seven prime ministers, innumerable hospitalizations, the Yeltsin era was over.

A new Russia, said Yeltsin in his farewell, needs new men. But was Vladimir Putin a "new man"? And what new policies could be expected from a Russia buffeted by economic disaster and a vicious war in Chechnya? These questions may be answered best by reviewing the Yeltsin legacy, the tactics of succession, and then the strategic implications of Putin's ascendancy. And, based on this analysis, we will arrive at a paradox: Putin may be better for Russia, but he will be more difficult for the United States.

The career of Boris Yeltsin is inseparable from the decline of the Soviet Union. A bluff, bright, and energetic man of humble origins, he came to Moscow's attention when in 1979 the Politburo discovered that young Russians were wedding at the old mansion outside Sverdlosk where Tsar Nicholas and his family had been executed. Over sixty years of communist rule and all those troops and nukes did not allay the insecurity of the elderly men in the Kremlin. The Tsar had to be killed again: the mansion had to be demolished. In due course it fell to the local party boss, Boris Yeltsin, to do the job. Mindful of public sentiment, he rolled the bulldozers in the dead of the night. There were no demonstrations. His masters in the Kremlin took note.

Boris Yeltsin was brought to Moscow by Mikhail Gorbachev whose ideas of reform -- glasnost and perestroika -- had as their objectives the rejuvenation of the State. Yeltsin's reputation for effective action and his provincial origins made him an ideal perestroikist. He was given the task of turning Moscow itself into a showpiece and that meant solving a most embarrassing problem: the long food lines and shortages, inexplicable for the capital. But Yeltsin soon uncovered a sump of corruption running into the Politburo itself. When Gorbachev failed to help him, Yeltsin saw himself as the scapegoat for failure. He committed the unforgivable sin of publicly protesting his fate for which he was censured, removed, and forced to recant in Old Bolshevik style; it was a measure of progress that he escaped with his life.

Gorbachev, no populist, saw in Yeltsin a potentially serious rival. Yeltsin, armed with growing public unhappiness over the privations of reform, which included rising prices, restrictions on vodka and fears of unemployment, saw in the failure of perestroika a political opportunity. It was at this point that Yeltsin converted to democracy, not least because there was no other way for him to ascend to power.

Still, it is doubtful that Yeltsin would have made it if not for the bungled coup of August 1991. Who can forget the picture of Yeltsin, tribune of the people, astride a tank, protecting the people's house -- the popularly-elected legislature -- against the drunken antics of the would-be coup makers, all Gorbachev appointees? At this dramatic moment, the Army commanders switched sides, and Gorbachev, freed from captivity, could only mutter reaffirmations of socialism on his return. Yeltsin, by that time openly- elected President of Russia as part of a federal scheme intended to hold the Union together, gave Gorbachev three more months to wrap up the empire. Then on December 25, 1991, to everyone's astonishment, Yeltsin convened the meeting in Kiev that peacefully euthanized the Soviet state after seventy-four violent years.

As everyone now knows, Yeltsin proved to be a man better at gaining and holding power than actually running a government. "Tsar Boris the First" soon swept aside the violent resistance to reform of the very parliament he had saved the year before. This time, the man atop the tank was driving it and sacked both the communist-era legislature and the constitution that produced it. But the new constitution and the December 1993 election to ratify his monarchy brought instead a Duma dominated by the Reds -- the old communists -- and the Blacks -- the new nationalists. These two anti-democratic factions could not overthrow Yeltsin, but they could influence his policy by virtue of representing important elements of public -- and army -- opinion.

From early 1994 onwards, Yeltsin ruled, often to the dismay and confusion of his Western friends, by tacking left and right, forward and backwards, up and down. The reformers in the presidential favor were offset by the stolid government of Viktor Chernomyrdin, a man who could work with the Duma, the nomenklatura, and the new kleptocrats who understood how to exploit the ruins of the command economy for fun and profit. Abroad, Yeltsin adroitly presented himself as the democrat, the alternative to the Duma. He asserted Russia's right to superpower status, despite its rapidly diminishing influence. And, of course, there was no money.

In 1996, an ailing and visibly whimsical Yeltsin roused himself for a final election. His government had passed from failure to humiliation: the bungled war in Chechnya; NATO's expansion; above all, the sinking economy and rising corruption. But he was lucky. His chief opponent, the communist Zyuganov, represented the failed past; the man on horseback, General Lebed, preferred high office to the risks of the ballot. Six months later, Yeltsin was temporarily rid of Chechnya thanks to Lebed, then rid of Lebed, and dominant once more.

He did not know what to do with his power except to conserve it. The financial collapse of 1998 was precipitated in part by his reckless rearranging of people and policies once he feared that Chernomyrdin and some of the wealthy oligarchs who financed his 1996 campaign might threaten him. Infirmities competed with whimsy; prime minister followed prime minister, their selection often depending on Yeltsin's judgment of how they could spare him from prosecution once out of power. The opposition grew apace with charges of personal and family corruption.

In his last year, Yeltsin gravitated toward KGB alumnae. The veteran intelligence and foreign affairs specialist Primakov provided a stable personality but no policy changes, staving off the Duma's impeachment drive. But Yeltsin suspected Primakov's motives, a suspicion confirmed no doubt when Primakov surfaced later as a presidential candidate. Stepashin, the next prime minister, was a career KGB; he failed to arrest the political slide toward Yeltsin's opposition.

Finally, Yeltsin settled on Vladimir Putin to arrange a secure exit. Putin settled on Chechnya as the place to reassert Russia's dignity and the dignity of the Army. And the Russian people liked it. The Duma election of December 16, 1999, finally gave Putin the makings of a majority that might at least allow Yeltsin a comfortable retirement in the style to which he had become accustomed and which he had personally denied his old rival Mikhail Gorbachev.

Vladimir Putin, Gorbachev quipped, is strong because no one knows what he thinks. In a Russia thirsting for new leadership, Putin plays the opposite of Yeltsin. He presents a public image of "KGB Lean": no quips, no color, no whims, above all no vodka. Instead, he offers a handsome, vigorous, vaguely ominous efficiency. This is a man with whom one can do business. He is also a man with whom one cannot refuse to do business.

Putin, however, is not exactly a new man. He might be described best as an Andropov reformer. He came of age in the KGB of the late seventies, which advocated drastic action to arrest the decline of the Soviet Union. Large parts of communist ideology were expendable and the objective was to infuse the only real civilian institution - - the Party -- with a brace of discipline and honesty that would rejuvenate the State. Indeed, Gorbachev himself owed his ultimate elevation to Andropov's patronage; the KGB chief become Soviet president saw in Gorbachev the man who could turn the Communist Party into an instrument of reform. This did not work out.

In a sense then, Putin is the KGB's second attempt to save the State, in this case Russia itself. He is fully seasoned in the vicissitudes of post-communism. After leaving the KGB, he earned a degree in international law. Later, when his law professor, Sobchak, became the first reformist mayor of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, Putin was appointed his deputy and ran much of the government especially during Sobchak's extended lecture tours abroad.

Those who dealt with him recall an effective executive, aware of his power, but rather more interested in getting things done than enriching himself. After Sobchak lost reelection, Putin came to Moscow, surfacing as the chief of the Federal Security Service (the renamed KGB). His special interest was said to be relations between Moscow and the restive Governorates. When Yeltsin saw to his alarm that the governors were combining with the sacked, but mildly popular, Yevgeny Primakov and the lord of Moscow, Mayor Lushkov, to present an anti-Yeltsin front, Putin was assigned to break it up. He did. Most of the governors were persuaded to become neutral. We do not know the arguments Putin used to change their minds, but we do know that Mayor Lushkov was badly hurt by a fortnight of public exposure to his extraordinary wealth through a TV station owned by Berezovsky, an oligarch friendly to Yeltsin.

Simultaneously, Putin relaunched the campaign to subdue Chechnya. After humiliating the Russian army in 1995-6, that province had resumed its criminal career eventually exporting its mix of Islam and extortion to Dagestan, a neighboring republic. Bomb blasts in Russian cities that killed 300 aroused public fury, and the Russian military convinced Moscow that it could win. The Chechen fighters would be channelled into killing fields, and then eliminated by carpet bombing regardless of civilian losses while Russian troops would be spared casualties -- a mix of NATO and Milosevic. Putin thus established that Russia would fight for the Caucasus and its oil wealth.

Will this second KGB reform effort be any more successful than the first? Can Russia be saved? Putin thinks so. In a broad-ranging manifesto published by Moscow to mark the millennium ,
Putin affirmed the need for a strong Russian state even as he invoked democracy, free speech, and rule of law. This document is remarkable for its statistical recital of Russia's tumble toward the third rank of nations. But the cure, Putin asserts, can be found in a rough Russian consensus to revive the State, in the name of efficiency and hope -- not ideological extremes or foreign models. He promises a strategic plan, and an attack on corruption. In short, Putin intends to exercise the powers given him by an authoritarian constitution in which, under Yeltsin, authority had ceased to exist.

Putin has already began to discharge Yeltsin's cronies. But will this 21st century version of Peter the Great's top-down style really work? Will there be a slaughter of the Boyars, a highly public end to the oligarchs? Can Putin successfully remonetize an economy now functioning primarily through barter trade after the financial crash of 1998 forced the country back onto its own resources? Can the confiscatory tax system and commercial laws be changed so that a sound ruble can become available for lending to productive businesses and, in turn, the capitalization of industry? These questions will have to wait until the March 26, 2000 election. Until then, Putin's fortunes depend heavily on what happens in downtown Grozny and how deftly he disables the racketeers in the Kremlin.

The Yeltsin era also leaves Putin with an unspoken crisis in U.S.-Russian relations. Moscow has been angered by NATO's expansion and the bombing of Serbia. While Russia sits at the top economic table -- the Group of Eight -- its views carry little weight. The Kremlin obstructs U.S. policy in the Gulf but cannot free Iraq of its sanctions and is but a bystander in the Arab-Israeli diplomacy. The Russians oppose American influence over the Caspian oil routes and Turkish competition in Central Asia.

Finally, there is the nuclear balance. Unable to sustain their current nuclear arsenal and modernize it, or to agree to the reductions in START II, the Russians face new pressure from the U.S. to revise the ABM Treaty. Meanwhile, Moscow's once formidable conventional forces are starved for equipment.

Russia's main international achievement is a budding alliance with China. But Putin, like Jiang Zemin, faces a conundrum: Russia needs access to U.S. markets and capital to succeed at home and this, in turn, limits the extent to which Moscow can tangle with Washington. Putin knows that Russia alone, or even Russia and China together, cannot offset U.S. power. But a clever man, who quickly shows progress in putting Russia's government and economy in order, can create a new basis for Russia's foreign policy, one that intends to cut U.S. influence down a size.

Boris Yeltsin told the Russian people that he had mistakenly believed Russia could move from darkness to light in one swoop. Vladimir Putin has prepared the Russians for a long, hard climb, telling them the truth about their situation. Still, it would be a severe error for the United States to underestimate the country's capacity to revive. Russia has the resources and the talent to be rich and powerful. All it needs is good government. Paradoxically then, what Washington hopes to see -- good government in Russia -- will also make for a more formidable competition, given Moscow's conception of its own interests. Vladimir Putin may indeed give the U.S. what it wants, and the U.S. may not like it.