The historical roots of Vladimir Putin's power play.
As a former party boss of a major industrial region, Yeltsin knew—in a way that the theorist Gaidar did not—that, in much of Russia, a factory was much more than a factory. It distributed the town's food and medicine, hosted the local schools, and controlled the housing. To shut down the factory, for whatever market reasons, meant shutting down the town. Yeltsin did not go that far. At the end of the year, he let Gaidar go and appointed as the new prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, the longtime head of Gazprom, the state-run gas and oil conglomerate.
Finally, in October 1993, facing a revolt from embittered parliamentarians, Yeltsin dissolved the legislature; the rebels and many rowdy friends occupied the building. Yeltsin mobilized the army to shell the place, forcing surrender. Again, he had his reasons. The revolt was led by an assortment of Communist retreads, outright fascists, and simple hooligans.
(Naomi Klein's depiction of the conflict as a clash between Chicago-style capitalists and honorable, fledgling democrats is ludicrous. The day before Yeltsin opened fire, I was one of many reporters who spent an eerie afternoon in the parliament building, talking with its armed, black-booted, and stinking-drunk occupiers. Believe me—and Klein should, since she quotes one of my Globe reports in describing the soldiers shelling the building the next morning—there were no democrats among that lot. Nor, by this time, was Yeltsin a Milton Friedmanite, if he had ever been.)
After "the events of October," as Russians called the clash, Yeltsin boosted his powers still further. He suspended the constitution and, before long, placed limits on press freedoms. At first, the press barons and their reporters rationalized their politicization; this was a fight between the forces of Russia's new freedoms and the forces for a return to the old Soviet ways; to their minds, they had to take sides. But they soon realized that authoritarian means lead, all too naturally, to an authoritarian end—especially in a country with such scant experience in democratic practices.
Yeltsin called a new parliamentary election in December, in the hopes of bolstering the reform parties. But Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ultranationalist party won the plurality of votes, and the revivified Communist Party didn't do badly, either. Yeltsin's presidential powers remained secure (a referendum strengthened them further), but the Gaidar-era reforms were more explicitly abandoned.
So, by the time Putin was elected president in 2000, the vestiges of a democratic Russia had long vanished.
It's worth recalling, given the present situation, how Putin became president. In August 1999, Yeltsin appointed him prime minister. In December, Yeltsin suddenly resigned. Under Russia's constitution, the prime minister succeeds the president in such circumstances, so Putin rose to become acting president—giving him the presumptive lead in the election the following March.
Putin inherited the supreme presidential powers of Yeltsin's constitution. If Putin does run for parliament and then becomes prime minister, he might, as some speculate, pull the strings from behind the scenes, like a puppeteer, while the president—who will no doubt be handpicked by Putin, just as Putin was handpicked by Yeltsin—only pretends to make the decisions.
That's one scenario. There's another one, though, which would reprise his earlier path to the top: His handpicked president resigns soon after the election, and, to the cheers of hundreds of thousands who throng Red Square as witnesses, Czar Vladimir once more ascends to the throne.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Boris Yeltsin by Clive Rose/Getty Images.