I despised Boris Yeltsin while he lived. Now he's dead. Why am I not happy?
On the surface, it's an easy question to answer. It's wrong to speak ill of the dead, and it's uncouth to rejoice in another man's misfortune. The Russians would call it nekulturnoye -- one of those many Russian-English cognates that means exactly what it sounds like: uncultured.
Yet there are plenty of people in whose demise we exult. What sets Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin apart from some of the others is the very mixed legacy he left us.
Who lost Russia?
In the waning days of the Yeltsin regime -- as the man's health clearly deteriorated, tensions between Russia and the U.S. rose over the war in Kosovo, and the world shuddered with the repercussions of the Great Default of 1998 -- the question was voiced over and over: "Who lost Russia?"
Did President Bush -- the first one -- not act quickly enough to extend the hand of friendship? Did America as a whole fail in its legendary generosity, by making promises that rivaled those of the Marshall Plan but delivering little more than expatriate "advisors," who cashed checks signed "USAID" and called it "assistance"? Or was it President Clinton, who allowed Russia's war against the Chechens to wage unfettered, who took the natural goodwill expressed by Russians freed from Communism and squandered it wantonly to expand NATO through the former Eastern bloc and up to Russia's very borders?
There's blame enough to go around, I think. But in the final analysis, those most responsible for "losing Russia" were the Russians themselves -- and most of all, their first president, Yeltsin.
Dermocracy and prikhvatizatsiya
People ultimately control their own destiny. Whatever others' failings, no nation can ultimately blame another for its failures. And it was Yeltsin's numerous failures to act -- on corruption, on the mafia, on police brutality, on the oligarchs -- that made "reform" a dirty word in Russian, figuratively. Meanwhile, Yeltsin's actions literally transformed words like "democracy" and "privatization" into pejoratives -- dermocracy and prikhvatizatsiya ("excrement-ocracy" and "grab-it-zation," respectively) in the language of the Russian street.
By waging war on the Chechen people -- twice -- for the crime of seeking independence; by shelling his own Parliament, with the people's elected representatives inside; by turning the independent media into a tool of Soviet-style, state-sponsored propaganda in the 1996 presidential election, Yeltsin deprived the word "democracy" of any meaning within the Russian context.
Through scandals such as loans-for-shares, Yeltsin gave away the crown jewels of the Russian state to a team of oligarch bankers in exchange for filthy lucre. Granting carte blanche to USAID-financed locusts like Jonathan Hay and Andrei Schleifer, who robbed Russia blind under the guise of setting up a "stock market," Yeltsin discredited the market economy.
The list of Yeltsin's failures rolls off the tongues of those of us who lived through them, who endured eight years of alcohol-soaked diky capitalism. We watched the elder generation wither away, the workers go unpaid for months on end, while the mob, the bankers, and the Yeltsin cronies got richer. We awoke every Monday wondering: "Did the president get soused this weekend? If he woke up with a hangover, then he'll be firing another prime minister, and who knows what the next Cabinet will look like?"
"There will be no devaluation"
Those years culminated in the Great Default, and the Crisis, of August 1998, when Yeltsin croaked to a nervous nation: "I firmly and clearly assure you that there will be no devaluation" -- and then devalued the Russian ruble three days later. He banned the repayment of private foreign loans, reneged on debts to the IMF, and sent the ruble tumbling 70% in value over the course of a month.
Russia's economy shattered, its reputation in tatters, Yeltsin entered the final phase of his relationship with the United States. Feuding over Kosovo and NATO, spatting over who owed what to whom, he ultimately named a KGB agent Vladimir Putin first as his prime minister, and then his replacement. And then he exited the presidency, as it were, stage left.
So, you ask me, what is Yeltsin's legacy? It's all of the above, and much more. Because for all of the harm he did to the concepts of democracy, and respect for the rule of law, for all that he did to distort and skew the free market, Yeltsin also accomplished much.
By shelling the Parliament, he kept hard-liners from undermining his administration. By invading Chechnya, he maintained the structural integrity of the Russian Federation. By giving away the nation's greatest companies to insiders, he created vested interests that would fight to keep their property from the Communists. By rigging the 1996 presidential election, he kept those Communists from regaining the levers of power; some would say he headed off a looming civil war.
In so doing, Yeltsin set the stage for Russia's revival. He created an environment in which entrepreneurs could establish businesses such as VimpelCom
In so doing, it turns out that Yeltsin left us a market economy after all. One in which individuals -- both in Russia and abroad -- can participate in the wealth creation of Russia's greatest companies, either vicariously through star performers such as Templeton's Russia and East European Fund
If for nothing else, we should thank him for this. Rest in peace, Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin.
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Fool contributor Rich Smith lived, studied, and worked in Russia through the latter part of President Yeltsin's first term of office, and for most of his second. He has no position in any of the companies mentioned in this article. If he did, The Motley Fool would require him to tell you so.