Boris Yeltsin resigned the presidency of his country much as he ruled, with a flair for the dramatic. His announcement on the eve of the new millennium surprised the Russian people and the world.
Yeltsin’s timing could hardly have been better from his perspective. Yeltsin all but guaranteed he will be succeeded by his hand-picked prime minister, Vladimir Putin. With presidential elections to be held before the end of March, Putin is likely to be voted into power thanks to the widespread popularity of the war in Chechnya.
Yeltsin, who was due to give up the presidency by June in any event, gained in other ways. Most important to him, he received assurances from Putin that he will not be prosecuted for any actions he committed in office.
Americans tend to think of Yeltsin as something of a buffoon, all too often drunk and seemingly out of control. To be sure, this was part of it, but there was also more to him.
Boris Yeltsin made some major contributions that deserve recognition. In the summer of 1991, his defiance was the critical factor in destroying the attempted coup against then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. And months later Yeltsin, as head of Russia, was central to the decision that led to the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Yeltsin also deserves credit for presiding over the emergence of limited democracy and free enterprise in Russia. Last month’s parliamentary elections, for example, were accepted as legitimate by most observers.
But Yeltsin’s rule was characterized by widespread corruption. Crime became rampant. The economy has yet to recover from years of mismanagement. He created a powerful presidency that poses a permanent threat to Russian democracy. Twice his army went to war against the republic of Chechnya, violating human rights in the process. Time and time again, he proved to be more comfortable with the drama of gesture than the details of governing.
It is too soon to know how Vladimir Putin, who spent the bulk of his career in the KGB, will turn out. Putin’s own writings suggest someone who favors the continuation of a dominant presidency and the revival of the state’s role in the economy, the military and Russia’s place in the world.
Putin has a good opportunity to improve Russia. The economy has bounced back from the August 1998 crash. The new parliament gives him a potential working majority, and he is surfing a wave of popularity because of the Chechen war.
Also, he is a relatively new face, one who is young and healthy in contrast to his predecessor.
It is instructive that Putin went to Chechnya as his first official trip. The fact that the war against the Chechen rebels is perceived as going well is the main source of Putin’s popularity. But this will fade if Russia cannot bring about peace without suffering many casualties. As history has shown, this will be anything but easy.
The United States has a great deal at stake in Russia. Russia remains a major power because it inherited an enormous nuclear weapons arsenal from the Soviet Union. The top priority for American foreign policy should be to reduce the Russian nuclear threat and to minimize the chance that any nuclear weapons or technology will be used accidentally or fall into the wrong hands.
Reducing the nuclear threat must take precedence over our justifiable concerns about Russian violation of human rights in Chechnya. It also takes precedence over our desire to see democratic and economic reforms institutionalized in Russia, something we can want but not will.
But working out a productive relationship with Putin’s Russia promises to be difficult. The country is an odd mixture of weakness and strength. It is filled with resentment over its diminished status in the world. Russia is unlikely to be the arch-rival the Soviet Union was during the Cold War, but neither is it likely to be a partner for the United States as we seek to shape the post-Cold War world.