The historical roots of Vladimir Putin's power play.

Military analysis.
Oct. 2 2007 4:25 PM

Blame Yeltsin

The historical roots of Vladimir Putin's power play.

Boris Yeltsin. Click image to expand.
Boris Yeltsin

When I arrived in Moscow in the summer of 1992, as the Boston Globe's new bureau chief, Boris Yeltsin's reforms were in full swing; the Communist Party, already swept out of power, was on trial; and the new Duma looked like it might become a serious parliamentary power. So, I called on the head of Russia's leading pro-democracy organization. Which cities, I asked him, should I go visit? Where were his movement's chapters taking off, possibly even taking control?

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan, Slate's "War Stories" columnist, was the Boston Globe's Moscow bureau chief from 1992-95.

He thought about my question silently for two minutes. (That's a long time to think silently; try it.) Then he called one of his colleagues on the phone and talked—or, mainly, continued his silence—with him for another five minutes.

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Right then, I knew that there were no such cities, no such chapters—that there was no democracy movement of any consequence in all Russia.

That moment came to mind when I read of Vladimir Putin's ploy to extend his power beyond next year's election—choosing not to run for a third consecutive term as president (which the Russian Constitution prohibits) but rather to run for parliament as the head of his wildly popular Russia Unity Party and thus very likely to re-emerge as prime minister.

It all goes back to Yeltsin—or, actually, to Peter the Great, Czar Alexander II, Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev. All the Russian leaders who mounted reforms or revolutions through the centuries did so from the top down. (The name of Lenin's party, the Bolsheviks, which means "the majority," was never an accurate description.)

Yeltsin came to power as an authentic rebel and a genuine advocate of Western-style reforms. But ultimately he remained a product of the Communist system through which he had risen. And he veered away from free markets and democracy quite early in his reign, once he realized their full implications.

He allowed and tolerated a startlingly free mass media (at least in his first few years as president), but he never associated with a political party, never encouraged the formation of independent unions or professional courts. In short, he never created the institutions of a democracy. The reforms were wholly linked to Boris Yeltsin and were thus easily reversed either by him or by some successor. This failure wasn't an oversight on Yeltsin's part; it was deliberate.

As early as July 1992, barely a half-year into his reign as president of post-Soviet Russia, Yeltsin began to issue decrees that greatly expanded his executive powers. The liberal newspaper Moskovski Novosti (Moscow News) ran a story, headlined "Boris Yeltsin's Quiet Coup," that condemned his measures as "one more step toward the establishment of a dictatorship." Yuri Afanasiev, a prominent democratic activist and a key ally in the parliament, wrote in Rossiya (Russia) that Yeltsin was now "preoccupied exclusively with how to stay in power."

These comments, which reflected a widespread disillusionment among democratic activists, were a bit overblown. Compared with the regimes of a few years earlier, compared even with Mikhail Gorbachev's era of glasnost and perestroika, Yeltsin's Russia was a haven of personal freedom—freedom of speech, freedom of mobility, freedom of trade. But it never made the leap to political democracy—which is something else entirely.

His economic reforms were also short-circuited. In August 1992, with Yeltsin's assent, the Russian Central Bank bailed out the country's large, state-owned factories to the tune of 1 trillion rubles (about $6.6 billion at the time). The move pushed the inflation rate to 70 percent per month. It rewarded the most inefficient industries. (In some cases, the raw resources they consumed were of greater value than the products they manufactured.) And it put an end to the radical free-market reforms being pushed by his young prime minister, Yegor Gaidar.

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