Mixed legacy

The dead are judged according to their deeds and Boris Yeltsin, the late Russian president, is no exception. The obituaries in the Western media praised the «hero of democracy» against the backdrop of that historic August 1991 image in which he is pictured on a tank, in defiance of the coup that accelerated the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin’s idealized depiction often comes with the demonization of his successor Vladimir Putin, a man usually blamed for the departure from that brief flowering of democracy to the hard winter of old-style Russian authoritarianism. The new generation of Kremlinologists seem to forget that when their hero sent the tanks against the opposition in October 1993, he caused bloodshed in the parliament and then struck against Chechnya. In fact, Putin’s strong-handed tactics pale next to Yeltsin’s legacy. Some grotesque aspects aside, Yeltsin’s strategy was marked by two fatal delusions: First, he thought his free-market shock therapy would rid the Russian economy of red tape and boost the market. Second, he thought that by throwing off the excess weight of the former Soviet republics and building a strategic partnership with the USA, Russia could maintain its superpower status. The first delusion was demolished in August 1998 when a sudden devaluation of the ruble saw people’s savings evaporate overnight, giving rise to a new system of oligarchic capitalism. The second delusion ended in March 1999 when Washington ignored the Russian veto of the war on Serbia, blocking Russia’s southern sea access. Yeltsin was taking Russia exactly where its enemies wanted. It pushed Russia onto the periphery of the international system and destroyed its production and state cohesion, turning the country into an exporter of cheap raw materials, labor and prostitutes. His sad end and the rise of a more pragmatic politician were equally inevitable.

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