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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 April 2007, 16:41 GMT 17:41 UK
The Russia that Yeltsin left behind
By Andrei Ostalski
BBC Russian Service

For many Russians, it is a huge paradox that the current government has not only given Boris Yeltsin a nearly royal funeral but has even described him as "a man, thanks to whom a whole new era has begun".

These are the words of President Vladimir Putin, who went on to say that thanks to his predecessor "a new democratic Russia was born, a free state open to the world".

Vladimir Putin and Boris Yeltsin 2000
The two leaders' views appear to be incompatible
Really? Many Russian liberals are flabbergasted. According to them, the country under Mr Putin is moving fast in the opposite direction to the one that Mr Yeltsin envisaged.

Russian conservatives who revere Mr Putin and disdain the Yeltsin legacy must also be surprised.

The two leaders' views of recent Russian history seem to be incompatible: Mr Putin has famously described the demise of the USSR as "the biggest geo-political tragedy of the century" while Mr Yeltsin certainly saw the end of the Communist empire as one of his life's main achievements.

The biggest issue regarding Mr Yeltsin's legacy is exactly this: is Russia now giving up on individual human rights and democracy after a short flirtation with liberalism in the 90s?

And did Mr Yeltsin himself, perhaps inadvertently, make this turn-around inevitable not only by bringing the former KGB secret police, with their particular view of the world, into the heart of the government, but also by allowing the all-permeating system of corruption to take root?

Bravery and panache

Another controversy surrounds Yeltsin's legacy concerning media freedoms. On the one hand, while in power he was their determined defender, on the other, it was on his watch that a mechanism of Machiavellian manipulation of the public opinion was created.

Boris Yeltsin and supporters in 1990
Boris Yeltsin inspired Russian liberals to unite behind him
Still, Yeltsin has every chance of going down in history as one of the few politicians of his time who really made a difference.

Nearly single-handedly, on the strength of his personal charisma and popularity he took on the formidable police state, inspiring other Russian liberals to unite around him and, somehow, incredibly, triumphed over the KGB, the Soviet Army and the huge Communist Party apparatus.

There was no depth to this popularity, though.

Opinion polls indicated that the "masses" did not understand what Yeltsin stood for, they just loved his bravery and panache. Many Russians seemed prepared to blindly follow him just because he matched their ideal of a good "muzhik" - a true, distinctively Russian "bloke".

It was this same personal popularity that also allowed radical economic reforms to be introduced.

Shock therapy

These reforms were painful. Very few people in Russia fully realised why the so called "shock therapy" had to be applied to society, destroying their meagre savings in the process.

Boris Yeltsin berated by a pensioner
Painful reforms eroded support for Mr Yeltsin and his government
Nobody seems to remember now that Yeltsin inherited a country that was totally and thoroughly bankrupt. The state debt was so huge that the world was not prepared to go on baling it out.

Only two days' reserves of grain and flour were left. Massive riots and a civil war seemed inevitable. Yeltsin and his young prime-minister, Yegor Gaidar, miraculously pulled the country out of this predicament.

The price for the shock therapy though, was very high: Gaidar became a hate-figure for a generation and Yeltsin's popularity also plunged.

The hurried privatization that followed could only knock his ratings further.

To save the country from the return of the dreaded Communists, Yeltsin turned to oligarchs and cynical spin-doctors (called in Russia "political technologists') who ruthlessly and efficiently manipulated voters via TV to win for him the 1996 elections.

Civil society

But it was easier to play on fears of a return to totalitarianism than to win back Russians' hearts and minds.

Boris Yeltsin's coffin
Mr Putin is more popular than Mr Yeltsin ever was
By the end of the century very little was left of Yeltsin's popularity. His health severely deteriorated and, in their desperation, his entourage chose a former KGB officer to try and keep the country together while preserving also the wealth of the new elite, created in the process of privatization.

By that time, the public was already hankering for the "good old days".

Nostalgia for everything associated with Soviet times was suddenly all the rage and the prevailing wisdom insisted on the incompatibility between the Russian mentality and Western models of civil society.

The overwhelming majority of the Russians these days agree with Putin's, not Yeltsin's view of their country's place in the world.

The current president is even more popular than his predecessor ever was and polls indicate that the public would like him to govern indefinitely.

Wasted struggle?

There are two opposite conclusions that can be drawn from all of this.

First, that Russia's fling with Western-style freedoms and democracy was a freak short accident and the country is now going back to its normal traditional ways.

If this is true, all Yeltsin's struggles and heroism would have been totally wasted.

The second view is that Boris Yeltsin continued what Mikhail Gorbachev had started before him - that they, in fact, worked for the same goal even if they both would hate to admit it - and that in the long run they have succeeded.

If this is the case then it would mean - the current backlash notwithstanding - that the true significance of Yeltsin's achievement will be finally recognised by future generations.

The majority of Russians will probably vote for the first notion. But, as Russian history shows, being in majority does not always mean being right.



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