THE DEVIL THEY KNOW
Few ever questioned Boris Yeltsin’s populist touch, especially after he used his skills first to save Mikhail Gorbachev and then to wrest power from him in 1991. The essential question that both Russians and the world have asked since then is whether Yeltsin knows how to use power—because his instincts have always been those of a rebel, not a ruler. Now, an answer is emerging. The consummate political outsider who made a career out of railing against the system has been in charge for 15 months—and the system is in shambles. But Yeltsin shows no sign of losing his knack for survival. Last week, he once again stared down a threat to his rule, fending off, for now at least, the reactionary tide of Russian nationalists and the old Communist guard who blame him for the country’s slide towards chaos. That continuing feud is part of the uncompromising struggle between reform and tradition, change and nostalgia, capitalist democracy and the Russian conservative’s version of the good old days. And although Yeltsin has treated his right-wing foes in parliament with disdain, most world leaders, mindful of the Soviet Union’s nuclear legacy, continue to back him. “Boris Yeltsin is the elected political leader of Russia,”
U.S. President Bill Clinton said last week. “He has shown great courage in sticking up for democracy, and I’m going to support that.”
Yeltsin’s courage has never been in doubt, especially since that sultry August evening only 19 months ago when he climbed onto a tank to mobilize the resistance that toppled the hardline plotters of a coup against the vacationing Gorbachev. The burly Siberian willingly shared with his countrymen the dangers of resistance to dictatorship. But all he appears to want from them now is their unqualified support for the way he chooses to deal, often impulsively, with his enemies and the ills besetting their vast and melancholy motherland. The economy, stumbling toward privatization, a free market and huge layoffs from obsolete factories, is a mess. Ethnic groups populating Russia’s 22 so-called semi-autonomous republics grow ever more clamorous. The press is free but the news is mostly bad. Poor morale and corruption have spread through the armed forces and there are numerous accounts of
soldiers selling their weapons to civilians. Meanwhile, the number of draftees who report for induction has dropped to 20 per cent from 80.
The biggest problem could be Yeltsin himself—his personality, his style and his seemingly flawed, blustery approach to the exercise of power, as unpredictable as a winter storm. One day after seeming to quell opposition to his rule with a forceful public performance, a dishevelled Yeltsin appeared again in the legislature to deliver an impromptu and incoherent speech, sparking accusations from opponents that he was drunk. Yeltsin later said that he was merely exhausted from the strain of the crisis and the death last week of his 84-year-old mother. But his unchoreographed approach to politics has been evident ever since parliament chose the 62-year-old onetime engineer as president of the Russian republic on May 29, 1990. He was elected as president by the Russian people in a historic vote on June 12, 1991. During the campaign, he said he did not belong to any political party because he wanted to be the leader of all the people. That declaration sounded more like a rebel war cry than political wisdom.
But with no precise political philosophy, no platform, no party organization to speak of and no palace guard of politically wise and disciplined aides, Yeltsin became head of the world’s largest nation. An indifferent administrator with no patience for detail, he has given the impression ever since of running the country from notes scrawled on the back of an envelope. Last December, shortly before the Congress of People’s Deputies refused to confirm acting prime minister Yegor Gaidar, Yeltsin told friends that he wanted to join a political party after all. But he did nothing about it and instead resumed his direct appeals to the people to help him against his enemies.
However, the people may no longer be listening in the numbers he needs for long-term survival (page 28). Certainly the wild and unrestrained hero-worship Yeltsin enjoyed in his rebel days is long gone. Thousands of once-committed Muscovites say that they have grown weary of the interminable Kremlin debate that has no obvious relevance to their bleak existence. “Prices are soaring, crime is flourishing and these guys find no way to occupy themselves other than brawling,” Alexander, a vendor on
Russia is sliding into chaos and
Boris Yeltsin is under siege. But the rebel is better at fighting for power than wielding it.
IN RUSSIA, HIS APPETITE FOR LIQUOR IS A RADGE OF MERIT
Moscow’s Tverskaya Street, said last week. Viktor Plyushcheev, a schoolteacher, said Yeltsin had promised that “reforms in Russia would not be at the people’s expense. I don’t think they care about people, so why should people care about them?” Taxi driver Nikolai Berezhkov summed up the apathy in the streets: “I worked like hell all week and got drunk Saturday,” he said. “On Sunday, I switched on the television and couldn’t for the life of me understand what was going on, so I just switched it off.”
And engineer Boris Pirogov said that the war of words between Yeltsin and parliament “is just like watching boxing on television. I may favor one of the boxers but would hardly move from my sofa to support him even if I could.”
Yeltsin himself should be sensitive to the remoteness of politics from everyday life. The Kremlin is distant from the concerns of the capital’s citizens, but it is half a continent away from Butko, a hamlet in the Ural Mountains about 1,500 km east of Moscow where Yeltsin was bom on Feb. 1,1931. In his 1990 autobiography, Against the Grain, Yeltsin claimed that he had always been a rebel accustomed to bizarre experiences that began in infancy. “As was the custom in villages all over Russia at baptisms, the parents offered the priest a glass of home-brewed beer, moonshine liquor or vodka—whatever they could afford,” he wrote. “My turn did not come until the afternoon and the priest, who had dmnk many toasts, could hardly stand. He dropped me into the huge old-fashioned tub, got into an argument with a parishioner and forgot to take me out.” His parents screamed and snatched him from the tub. ‘The priest was not particularly worried. He said: Well, if he can survive such an ordeal, it means he’s a good tough lad.’ ”
Many of the villagers lived in poverty and Yeltsin spent his childhood in one of the cmde communal huts common to the Urals. His father was a laborer; his mother took in laundry and sewing and they had neither indoor toilets nor running water. ‘Worst of all was the winter when there was nowhere to hide from the cold,” he recalled. ‘We had no
warm clothes, so it was the old nanny goat who saved us. I remember huddling up to the animal, warm as a stove. The six of us slept together around her on the floor.” Yeltsin’s career as a rebel, he recounted, began when he first went to school. “In all my years in school, I was always the ringleader, always devising some prank. In the
fifth grade, for instance, I made all the class jump out a first-floor window when the class mistress came in. We all disliked her.” Yeltsin was expelled from public school several times for rebellious behavior and fighting. But he always won his way back by using the system against itself, appealing adverse decisions to a higher authority—and refusing to back down.
His first major job after finishing school was
managing a state engineering company in the Urals. He joined the Communist party and eventually became regional chairman. People in Yekaterinburg, the former Sverdlovsk, where Yeltsin was party boss until the mid1980s, still recall how he frequently wangled a variety of benefits for the region from the elderly Communist dictator Leonid Brezhnev.
It was Gorbachev who first detected Yeltsin’s potential as an ally in his battle to reform the dying Communist system and, in 1985, made him party chief in Moscow. But he fired him two years later when Yeltsin’s campaign against special privileges for officials angered the party leadership. The attacks on Yeltsin by his parliamentary adversaries during the past few weeks echoed Gorbachev’s scathing rebuke at the time: “Have you reached such heights of self-admiration and is your opinion of yourself such that you put your ambitions above those of the party and our affairs?” Yeltsin’s immense and easily bruised ego was surely on the minds of the White House and state department planners of this week’s scheduled summit with Clinton in Vancouver. For example, when then-Secretary of State James Baker visited Moscow in April, 1991, Yeltsin refused to attend a dinner that Baker gave for the leaders of the 15 Soviet republics. Instead, he wanted Baker to meet him on his own ground—at the Russian legislature. Aides hastily worked out a compromise, one of the few to which Yeltsin has probably ever agreed, and the meeting took place at the residence of the U.S. ambassador.
Clinton will undoubtedly also have been briefed on other characteristics of the mercurial Russian leader. Yeltsin is eager to put relationships on a firstname basis—a quirk that openly irritated President George Bush. And Yeltsin’s impulsiveness has occasionally bordered on recklessness. When the rivalry between him and Gorbachev had become openly savage in 1991, Yeltsin at one point urged his followers to wage war against the remnants of the Soviet central government. He later half-apologized for his overheated rhetoric, adding somewhat sheepishly: “Maybe I should have just read the text of my speech.” But his tendency towards brinkmanship persists. In the early stages of the current crisis in December, he demanded that the Russian people choose between him and the Congress of People’s Deputies. The standoff momentarily ebbed when the two sides agreed to conduct a refer-
endum in April on who really rules Russia, although the Congress later revoked the agreement after a dispute over the wording. But Yeltsin said last week that he will go ahead and hold his own referendum.
Despite persistent rumors since his widely publicized December clash with the Congress
that Yeltsin has toyed with the idea of imposing presidential rule backed by the army, he has been careful not to force the military’s hand. But should his position become even more precarious, he may feel himself under increasing pressure to do something. Late last week, Vice-President Alexander Rutskoi went
before the Congress to denounce the market reforms Yeltsin has introduced. The fury of Rutskoi’s attack aroused concern that the army might follow the lead of the vice-president, a former air force officer. But diplomats said that inter-service rivalry would likely leave the army unmoved by Rutskoi’s displays of passion.
Yeltsin’s public life has been well documented since he first arrived in Moscow eight years ago; by comparison, his personal life is shrouded in secrecy. In the West, speculation that he drinks heavily, often disappearing from his official duties for two or three days at a time, is titillating. But in Russia, where intemperance is common, the president’s appetite for liquor is widely considered to be a badge of merit. Yeltsin freely admits that he drinks and, in fact, re-introduced alcohol to Kremlin receptions and state dinners after the teetotalling Gorbachev moved on. Yeltsin’s doctors say that he has great stamina and enjoys good health, although he has a minor heart condition and occasional high blood pressure.
Unlike Gorbachev, Yeltsin keeps his wife, Naina, a former engineer, and their two married daughters in the background. In a rare interview, with the Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland last year, Naina Yeltsin said: “Our whole family life turns around Boris Nikolayevich. We want to make his life as easy and as nice as possible. He never allows me to mix in his [political] affairs. He wants to decide everything by himself. If ever I say something, he takes that just as information. He listens politely but he does not react.” Yeltsin himself bluntly and publicly declared last year: “Of course my wife has a view of her own and she is free to express it.” Then he added: “But in my family,
I am the boss.” In the Byzantine world of Kremlin politics, that is a role Yeltsin would dearly like to play in the turbulent life of Mother Russia as well.
RAE CORELLI with MALCOLM GRAY in Moscow
The 50-year-old former economics professor has emerged as the most powerful opponent of Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s fast-track economic reforms. As speaker of both the 1,033-member Congress of People’s Deputies, the irregularly sitting assembly that is Russia’s highest legislative body, and the smaller standing parliament, whose 247 members are drawn from congressional ranks, Khasbulatov is the standard-bearer of Russian conservatives. A former ally of Yeltsin, he now accuses him of steering the country towards dictatorship. But Khasbulatov, himself, often displays authoritarian tendencies. A Chechen, a member of one of the mountain tribes from southern Russia’s turbulent Caucuses region, which have a well-deserved reputation as fierce fighters, he has cajoled, bullied and manipulated fractious legislators in his power struggle with Yeltsin.
Zorkin and his 12 fellow judges of Russia’s Constitutional Court have the daunting task of interpreting and upholding a constitution that was written during the Communist era—and that is now at the centre of the power struggle between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and parliamentary chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov. Last week, after Yeltsin declared that he would rule by decree and hold a referendum testing popular confidence in his administration, Zorkin’s court ruled the plan unconstitutional. That, in turn, fuelled demands for the Russian president’s impeachment. As Russia continues to emerge from the shadows of the Soviet era, 50-year-old Zorkin, a former Communist and law professor at Moscow State University, will likely find himself at the centre of many battles to come.
During the hardliners’ 1991 coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev, Grachev, then the commander of Soviet airborne forces, refused orders to attack the Russian parliament building in Moscow where Russian President Boris Yeltsin led thousands of defiant protesters. Yeltsin later rewarded Grachev’s loyalty by appointing him head of Russia’s 2.5-million-member armed forces. Last week, the 45-year-old Afghanistan war veteran pledged that those forces would stay neutral in the power struggle between Yeltsin and parliamentary chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov—an action that many analysts said showed implicit support for the embattled president. But Grachev also warned of division in the ranks. “The army has maintained stability so far, but the situation is heated,” he told parliament.
“A split in the army would end in bloodshed.”