NEW YORK — Ten years ago yesterday, Boris Yeltsin clambered atop Tank No. 110 of the Taman Division of the Red Army and raised his booming voice in a call to resist a military coup. The image of the defiant Yeltsin became a symbol of the dramatic collapse of the world's last major empire and its communist system.
Part of the legacy of that act was the disintegration of a communist state and the largely peaceful emergence of 15 independent countries. Yet, because he had personalized the struggle for freedom, Mr. Yeltsin also ushered in a complex, and often contradictory, process of political reforms rooted in executive power.
Unlike Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic and Lech Walesa of Poland, who embodied change from the grass roots, Yeltsin led the opposition to the August coup attempt as president of a protostate and a former Communist steeped in traditions of command politics. He was not a civic opposition activist. But from Aug. 19 forward, the world preferred to see him as the personal guarantor of Russian reform - an "icon of resistance" with "the authority of the people behind him." Western policy focused on supporting his path.
In the years that followed, Yeltsin built up the constitutional powers of the presidency at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches. His efforts to clip the wings of retrograde and antireform branches of power seemed right and were cheered by the Clinton administration and European leaders. But Russia's reform path took a decidedly negative turn away from the one followed by other post-communist countries like Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.
Today, the "democracy divide" between Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union threatens a new, post-cold war demarcation line between Europe and the rest of Eurasia.
Most of Russia's serious political defects and its recent drift toward authoritarianism under President Vladimir Putin have their roots in Yeltsin's decision to concentrate power in the executive branch. Just as significant, Yeltsin's consolidation of executive power was copied throughout the former Soviet Union (the Baltic republics aside), and set the standard for the institutional development of new states. Today, of the 12 non-Baltic Soviet republics, only Moldova and Georgia give their parliaments a significant share of power. In all the others, excessive presidential power prevails, albeit to varying degrees.
Presidential power in most of the Central Asian states is absolute. In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where the executive branch is in ascendancy over the legislature and courts, the president represses all political opposition and severely restricts basic freedoms of religion, speech, press, and assembly.
In Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko rules over a presidential dictatorship that has subordinated the government and the courts to his political whims, denied citizens basic rights and civil liberties, and legislated by decree. The democratic world regards Mr. Lukashenko's promises of a free and fair presidential election next month as empty rhetoric.
Similarly, although Ukraine and Russia have passed minimal standards of democratic electoral procedure over the past decade, they too exhibit strong patterns of presidential preeminence. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma - who has been implicated in a Watergate-style tapes scandal that suggests widespread high-level corruption - names all ministers without formal input from parliament, appoints all of the country's governors, and enjoys significant discretion in dissolving the legislature. In the past year, he has sought to consolidate his authority even further.
Russian President Putin's wide-ranging powers were a gift from his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. And since taking office, Mr. Putin has taken his own steps to further concentrate executive power. The most worrisome of these may be his appointment of seven new regional "super governors," most of whom have backgrounds in the military or security services.
In the context of post-Soviet privatization, the concentration of power in the president has created systems in which economic power derives from executive branch patronage. This, in turn, has fueled massive corruption, cronyism, and nepotism. Unchecked presidential power has also diminished the importance of political parties as the locus of legitimate authority, weakened local governments, and made it difficult, if not impossible, for civic groups to affect policy. Moreover, such power has reinforced the penchant to impose intense, unchecked pressures on the media.
Although legacies of the brutal totalitarian past certainly have contributed to the dismal human rights and democratic records of most post-Soviet states, Yeltsin's legacy of concentrated presidential power may be the most important structural factor in the authoritarian evolution of the former USSR. This fact alone makes the work of the former USSR's democratic forces daunting.
For today, presidential systems in countries like Turkmenistan, Belarus, and even Russia and Ukraine are resistant to change, and any relinquishment of executive power will be hard won. This makes a clear case for reinvigorated American and European diplomacy and unambiguous moral leadership.
But diplomacy and leadership must be coupled with long-term commitments of direct assistance to the individuals and groups in civil society that struggle for political balance and simple liberty. These are the same "long-suffering people" to whom Boris Yeltsin promised "freedom once again for good" a decade ago.
Adrian Karatnycky is president and Amanda Schnetzer is a senior researcher at Freedom House. They are co-editors of 'Nations in Transit 2001' (Transaction Publishers).