Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin: a fortunate choice

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“I’m glad that I wasn’t mistaken in choosing Vladimir Putin,” said Boris Yeltsin in an interview with Itogi magazine. “I understood that a rapidly-developing Russia needed a young president. I tried to find someone for whom the ideals of liberty and the free market, and an understanding of the need to move forward together with the civilized nations, would be the most important values.”

What’s more, Yeltsin emphasized that he also “considered it important for that person to have a strong will – a fulcrum. And Vladimir Putin has that.”

The choice proved correct: “The people of Russia sensed that strength, and elected Putin as their president.”

When Itogi asked whether he is satisfied with Russia’s policies these days, Yeltsin answered: “One always has some criticism; it would be strange if there weren’t any. Most important, however, is the strategic course – and I support that, I consider it correct.”

These statements are interesting, from various standpoints. Yeltsin is one hundred percent convinced that Russia’s fate depended on his efforts to find a successor. But as we subsequently found out, the best minds in Russia at the time were also working on that problem: Boris Abramovich Berezovsky, for example… Since then, living in London, he has repeatedly expressed disappointment with his own recruitment choice, who didn’t live up to expectations.

Then again, this circumstance wasn’t all that important for most citizens; they did indeed accept the candidacy of the new “young president” from the hands of the old president. And they still have no doubts that Vladimir Putin, as the Novye Izvestia newspaper puts it, is their “hope and bulwark.”

Novye Izvestia notes: “It turns out that even tragic situations and crises in which the miscalculations of the authorities are obvious cannot undermine Russian citizens’ trust in the president. Throughout Vladimir Putin’s period in office, his approval rating has never dropped below 60%.”

In other words, citizens never associate policy failures with the president himself – in contrast to the Yeltsin era. Even now – after the Beslan school hostage siege, the Kursk submarine disaster, the Moscow subway bombings, and the monetization of benefits – Putin’s rating is at 71%.

Leading political consultant Alexei Makarkin explained to Novye Izvestia that citizens do indeed have complaints against the authorities – fairly serious ones: “But the psychological situation is such that the people feel a need to turn to someone for support and protection. They have a need to associate their hopes with someone.”

In other words, the hopes of voters are personified. The people of Russia find it hard to put their faith in a party, a parliament, or a government – but they can trust in a tsar, a general secretary, or a president. “People trusted in Stalin and Yeltsin in the very same way,” says Makarkin.

Indeed, back in 1991, polls showed 72% of respondents naming Yeltsin as their most trusted politician, notes leading pollster Yuri Levada in the Kommersant newspaper. And when citizens’ opinions of their leader deteriorated sharply, and it became obvious that Yeltsin was no longer the “tsar to trust in” for the people, Putin was called up to fill that role.

As Novye Izvestia reports, the Levada Center agency has done a number of polls aimed at determining exactly why people vote for Putin. Most respondents say there are simply no alternatives: “People don’t see anyone else they could rely on.”

All the same, citizens don’t think Putin is actually doing a good job. Levada Center analysts note that in 2005 polls, only 16% of respondents said that Putin is popular because he is successfully handling the problems facing Russia.

In other words, few citizens would agree that the “strategic course” pursued by the present administration is “correct,” as Yeltsin puts it.

Meanwhile, the Gazeta newspaper recalls that Yeltsin’s own charisma once played a deciding role when citizens faced a choice between “liberal values and the values of a full stomach.” During his first term in office citizens saw President Yeltsin as an epic figure, attributing the most astonishing feats and adventures to him: “Look at the story of how he fell off a bridge while inside a sack!”

But even the real events in his life, says Gazeta, often resembled a performance: “There was Yeltsin standing on a tank, calling on the people to defend democracy. Then there was Yeltsin conducting an orchestra in Germany – a show of buffoonery masking the bitterness of Russia losing its European borders.”

Even his exit from the political stage – holding a glass of champagne, beneath a decorated fir tree on New Year’s Eve – was “staged with extraordinary artistic taste.”

Since his departure, however, Yeltsin has kept silent. He rarely talks to the media, and his statements are usually very ambiguous.

“We don’t rule out,” says Gazeta, “that his silence and non-interference into politics is one of the rules of the game imposed on the former president by the current authorities in return for unprecedented guarantees, immunity, and inapproachability for justice.”

In fact, if at the moment of stepping down only 2% of people trusted Yeltsin. According to Levada Center poll results published in Novye Izvestia, 49% of respondents say Yeltsin ought to be prosecuted for “illegal actions and abuse during his time in office.”

Almost 70% of respondents are sure, that the Yeltsin era brought more evil than good.

“Development of democracy is thought to be good,” and “disintegration of the USSR, collapse of economy, and war in Chechnya” are considered evil.

In general, says Yuri Levada in Kommersant, attitude to Yeltsin can be called ambivalent: about half of respondents disapprove of perestroika, and many more express disapproval of Yeltsin.

It means, explains Levada, “people don’t like the person more, than the political course he carried out.”

Everything is the opposite with Putin. Though, as Yuri Levada points out, now there is a new generation of Russians, who remember neither the events of early 1990s, nor crises of the Yeltsin era. It is hard for them to appreciate the significance of changes, that took place, “The today youth lives more or less well, has opportunities to develop and to earn more, travel around the world. These young people approve of the processes under way in Russia now, and those who run the country. They are not interested in Yeltsin, they remember neither evil, nor good.”

As Marietta Chudakova says in Vedomosti, “Yeltsin’s main enemy in his own country is time and the biological human trait of forgetting everything bad that happened long ago, but feeling that everything is bad today: ‘He is the origin of all our problems!'”

To change attitudes towards Yeltsin, Russia should change itself, maintains Levada in Kommersant. Some day, late August 1991 – Boris Yeltsin’s shining hour – might become a public holiday in Russia, marking the starting point of a new Russia, like Bastille Day in France.

Speaking about the choice of successor, those who value Boris Yeltsin’s contribution to Russian history and his efforts in “destroying the pyramid” of the Soviet regime, dismantling of the Soviet economic and political system, consider this choice obligate.

“His second term in office, exhausted by long hard struggle, strongly offended and humiliated (since autumn 1991), absence of any support, a troubled conscience because of Chechnya, after the default, stricken by ostentatious bad luck, Yeltsin held a roof of freedom over the citizens by the skin of his teeth,” says Chudakova in Vedomosti, “You should do something! Look for a liberal candidate! Everything was in your power!”

It makes no sense to blame Yeltsin; was it he who “threw away and trampled our real candidate for the sake of his interests?”

Yeltsin “thought it over long, assuming rightly that the unfortunate country as it was at the time must be passed into strong and reliable hands,” says Ilya Milshtein in Novoe Vremya. The list of potential candidates wasn’t long, “Nemtsov looked too sweet. Stepanin – too mild. Chubais could never win an election.”

As a result, the choice was Putin. “It was a logical choice, and well-calculated conclusion, bad luck should follow till the end. If it was so unlucky with reforms and democracy, the heir should be a man who played a role of a KGB servicemen, who believed in democracy, with qualities opposite to those of Yeltsin: young, sober, healthy, cynical, reserved.” Besides, “capable of using the low instincts of the citizens: fear, spite, revenge for his own ends.”

In Milshtein’s opinion, “it is really very sad to think,” that “sick Yeltsin chose an heir of glorious deeds. A man, who percepts the reality not adequately.” That’s why “everything that take place now, to some extent is a result of political and personal illusions” of Boris Yeltsin. In this sense, according to the author, we can say, that “the current Russia lives inside his hallucinations.”

Though, the specter created by Yeltsin (if we use the offered view of the situation) has long been living its own life and developing according to its own logic. Besides it is obvious, that all definitions and explanations, presented as post factum, are not very persuasive at least because of their diversity and profusion. It proves to be rather hard to predict the actions of the authorities. Especially if the authorities are not interested in forecasts.

At his recent press conference, Vladimir Putin, as Vedomosti says, unexpectedly for everyone, “denied rumors about his future” – and also “mixed up all the cards in the political game of 2008.”

Putin’s answer to a question about a “party-based government” is described by Vedomosti as a “political sensation.” Putin said that though “it’s all possible in the long-term outlook,” he “opposed to introducing such a practice right now.” That’s because “with a developing economy, strengthening statehood, and the principles of federalism being conclusively established, we need strong presidential rule.”

Dmitry Oreshkin, an expert from the Mercator Group, says that now “we can confidently discard the theory that Putin might become the leader of United Russia after the next elections.” Yuri Korgunyuk from the InDem Foundation shared this opinion: “Putin has made it clear that United Russia isn’t up to the task of forming a government. It’s not a party – it’s a decorative ornament for Putin’s rule, unlikely to outlast his term in office.”

United Russia’s political rivals don’t conceal their joy. Even Dmitry Rogozin, whose relations with the Kremlin leave much to be desired, told Vedomosti, “Putin has made it clear that the Kremlin can’t let United Russia take responsibility for our country.”

Communist Party officials remarked, not without some vitriol, that the presidential administration fears to let even a loyalist party grow strong.

Putin answered a question about his successor more evasively: “We have a great many people in Russia who would be capable of leading the country.”

When he was asked if the recent changes in the government were connected with the elections of 2008, he advised the government “to think about the results of its activities, which are reflected in the living standards of citizens,” and be “minimally politicized.”

Gleb Pavlovsky, president of the Effective Policy Foundation, says that by this Putin made it clear that he “is opposed to the process of state administration moving into election campaign mode.”

Pavlovsky also commented on Putin’s denial of the rumor that he might head Gazprom after stepping down as president. “I don’t consider myself a businessman, whether by nature or by previous experience,” said the president. But Pavlovsky thinks, that the reason is that Putin “is simply too important for most jobs, including the job of heading a corporation.” Pavlovsky maintains that Putin is sure to retain “his political weight” after 2008.

Andrei Kolesnikov, a special correspondent of Kommersant, made some very interesting observations at the press conference. It seemed to him that when talking to journalists, Putin, contrary to his usual habits, “didn’t use much care in selecting his words. This was very strange for a press conference involving the national leader.”

Kolesnikov gave plenty of examples. Say, speaking about the prices Russia is charging Ukraine for natural gas, Putin said, “We aren’t just picking that price out of our nose!”

Concerning statements of Western analysts, who criticize his policy and Russia’s chairing the G-8, Mr. Putin expressed his thoughts even more clearly, “Damn them all!”

Further answering the question, if Russia was going to use gas as a “secret weapon” to fight against Europe, he calmed down the Western journalist, “Firstly, we have enough missiles.”

This last phrase produced a strong impression in the West. “Le Figaro” (a translation of the article was published in Gazeta) remarked, “It is worth while to mention, that though nobody attacks him, the Russian president always acts on the defensive. Question after question. One can think, that he is an adroit circus tamer. At the moment when he feels, that he tamed the beast, Putin shows, that he is ready to give it a little sugar.”

From the point of view of the newspaper, the president “maintains contradictory relations with the media. Sometimes he considers it his ally, sometimes his enemy. The same holds for oligarchs, politicians, and ‘humanists’.”

But Andrei Kolesnikov takes a different view of the situation. When Putin, assessing the economic situation in Russia, said, that they hadn’t managed to maintain the rouble rate, the correspondent from Kommersant remarked, “Mr. Putin could have said, ‘The government hasn’t coped.” As he did before. But he said “we.”

The author draws the conclusion, that, “Now he probably thinks there’s no longer any need to distance himself from mistakes that might affect his rating. It might mean that the president isn’t as interested as he used to be in his rating, the sacred cow of Russian politics and the economy.” If this is true, remarks Kolesnikov, we should note that it’s happened two years before his term in office expires. “That’s frightening, since Vladimir Putin is not restrained by the danger of losing his support rating. So he isn’t restrained by anything.” And this, emphasizes Kolesnikov, “is direct evidence that Putin is going to step down.”

But an even stronger impression was made on Kolesnikov by Putin’s remark (over three hours after the conference began) that it was high time to wind it up, because “it’s unlikely that any of us are wearing disposable diapers.”

“I shuddered at this joke,” says Kolesnikov, “Until now the president couldn’t afford to talk in such a way, even off-the-record. Maybe something like this was on the tip of his tongue, I don’t know, but something kept him from speaking such jokes aloud. There are no such restraints any longer.”

Maybe he is fed up with being somebody’s hallucination. Six years after moving into the Kremlin, and two years before the end of his term in office, he has finally become himself.

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