Vol 2, No 1
10 January 2000
T H E A M B E R C O A S T:
Bye Bye Boris
The resignation of Russian President Boris Yeltsin on 31 December 1999 surprised many people throughout the world. It came at an immensely symbolic time for much of the world, as it moved into a third era of modern existence. It also held symbolic meaning in Russia, as it essentially consigned the fight to rid the country of Communism, which Yeltsin symbolised, to the last millennium.
What came as less of a surprise was the host of misleading and misguided analyses about the resignation that came from "leading" media around the world. Reputable media sources began speculating on why Yeltsin left, with ideas ranging from his desire to protect himself and his "family" with immunity to yet another health collapse. His smiling and joyous appearance in Jerusalem days later - albeit with wineglass in hand - quelled those rumours.
The media seem to always want to paint an ugly picture on Yeltsin, presenting him as an uncaring and ruthless brute. Perhaps that is a legacy of dealing with Soviet leaders like Brezhnev, but it also shows the lack of understanding of post-Soviet Russia by the media. It is no longer ruled by a person, they forget.
Immediately upon Yeltsin's resignation, the international media focused on the issue of immunity for him and his "family." First of all, the decree signed by acting President Vladimir Putin does not grant immunity to Yeltsin's "family" at all. The decree granted immunity to all Russian presidents - not just Yeltsin (though for now, only Yeltsin). Plus, if Yeltsin sought immunity, it is more for fantastic charges like "breaking up the USSR," which incidentally was one of the impeachment charges from the Duma.
In fact, Yeltsin saw an opportunity - the best opportunity - for a power transition to his chosen successor: Vladimir Putin. Putin was popular (albeit generally for less-than-honourable reasons) and had just secured a strong showing in the new Duma. Yeltsin's early resignation was nothing less than a shrewd political move, catching his opponents off guard and less than ready in their campaign war chests. Some analysts argue that this abrogates democratic norms - perhaps so using an American frame of reference, but, in ways, it could be like calling a snap election to firm up a ruling majority. It happens all over the world on the prime ministerial level, from Tokyo to London.
Again showing the lack of contemporary familiarity with the issues, the world media paid great attention to an interview given to an Italian newspaper by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev gave what he thought were the reasons for Yeltsin's departure, on which most of the world's biggest media sources immediately placed extra emphasis. That is tantamount to reading too much into the opinions of the Austrian government by Dr Otto von Habsburg - though Dr von Habsburg is renowned world-wide and Gorbachev is still enjoying the afterglow of what one US political commentator calls "Gorbasm."
Going back to this media infatuation with demonising Yeltsin - either with allegations of wrongdoing or drink - there is also a perceived need by the media to make Yeltsin into a "Tsar Boris" of sorts. Reports paint a picture of an omnipotent Yeltsin, ready to send troops into Chechnya and to blast his own parliament building. However, if it were that simple, why did Yeltsin fail to get rid of the Communists and bury Lenin? That was one of his ultimate desires, and yet he could not do it. After those erratic episodes attributed to drink several years ago, it appeared that Yeltsin became more of a kukla (puppet) for the real people in power in the shadows. Even the recent campaign in Chechnya was generally known to be orchestrated by others, including the current acting president. Perhaps that is why Yeltsin celebrated his happiest New Year's Day in a long time this time around, with those strings finally detached from his back.
Looking at Yeltsin from Estonia's point of view, many significant events happened due very much to Yeltsin himself. Many people, including President Lennart Meri, remembers the time when Yeltsin - then President of the RSFSR - flew to Tallinn to give moral support to Estonia's independence struggle as Soviet crackdowns began all over the former USSR. Also, it was the personal rapport between Yeltsin and Meri that led to the drunken meeting which ended the Red Army's occupation of Estonia after 50 years.
Former Estonian Ambassador to Russia Mart Helme also recalls the friendliness expressed to him personally and to the Estonian nation by Yeltsin, recalling how Yeltsin personally interceded to have a military nuclear reactor removed from Estonia in 1994. This is not the demon portreyed in the Western media.
However, with the exit of Boris Yeltsin, an historic era of transition ends in Russia: the political transition. The economic transition could take years, if not generations. Yeltsin's tearful apology to the nation on television, if anything, makes us remember the personal tragedy involved here. In his quest to transform Russia away from Communism, he suffered immense hardship and problems, ranging from a plane crash to his quintuple bypass. Most media at the time shrugged off Naina Yeltsina's tearful admission that she wanted her husband to quit - forgetting that despite their official status, there was a wife sick with worry over her husband. Despite doctors' warnings, he risked his health to fight the 1996 presidential campaign. Though it was less than fair, the personal energy invested by Yeltsin was key in winning the vote - and landing him in the cardiac unit of hospital.
Thus, as we look back at the first eight years of post-Soviet Russia, it is really a look back at the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. Despite the public and media, both local and international, demonising him, Yeltsin managed to remove the threat of a Communist resurgence as much as he could, and this was clearly his main goal as President. Hopefully, Vladimir Putin can set Russia on a firm course using the foundation given by Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin.
Mel Huang, 7 January 2000
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