Why Boris Yeltsin's legacy is rosier in the West
Ahead of his funeral Wednesday, Western reflections on Russia's first post-Soviet president – and his contemporaries, Putin and Gorbachev – often contradict Russian views.
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As Gorbachev's popularity grew in the West, it waned in the USSR. As economic travails multiplied and lineups for basic products grew, the Soviet public stopped listening to Gorbachev's lengthy speeches and flocked to a new breed of radical reformers, foremost among whom was a gruff Siberian with a shock of graying hair, Boris Yeltsin.Skip to next paragraph
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Largely ignored in the West, Yeltsin moved from strength to strength at home, becoming Soviet Russia's first elected president in June 1991, facing down a hard-line coup attempt that August, and engineering the USSR's downfall in December.
Gorbachev not revered at home
If Gorbachev's stock remains high around the world, it has never recovered in Russia. When he ran in 1996 presidential elections, Gorbachev won less than 1 percent of the votes.
While Russians recall Gorbachev as a leader who fumbled and lost his kingdom, many say they think of Yeltsin as the "destroyer".
"Yeltsin's main drive was to tear things down; that's what he was good at," says Gennady Chuffrin, deputy director of the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. "At no stage did Yeltsin attempt to build anything. Things slipped out of his hands, and were taken over by ... business tycoons, regional leaders, and criminal groups. The guiding principle of the Yeltsin era was chaos."
As that era wound down, amid war in Chechnya, corruption scandals, allegations of electoral abuse, and chronic economic decline, Yeltsin's popularity at home fell drastically but he never seemed to lose his mojo with Western leaders. In 1998, Russia was admitted into the Group of Seven major Western democracies as a full member. Despite opposing NATO's 1999 war to liberate Kosovo, Yeltsin was subsequently invited to send a contingent of occupation troops to the territory.
On New Year's Eve 1999, a faltering Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned and handed power to Putin, his chosen prime minister. The years under Putin have been some of the most stable and prosperous in Russia's history, says Mr. Medvedev. "Putin is a creator. He restored the state, the army, effective government, and did much to improve the lives of the people," he says.
Popular Putin seen as autocratic
Putin's latest popularity rating, in March, was 82 percent. And, true to the historic pattern, the new Kremlin leader is regarded with growing antipathy in the West, where he is widely seen as an authoritarian leader who's dismantled Yeltsin's democratic achievements and brought back Soviet-style economic controls and repression of dissent.
But if democracy is waning in Russia today, some Russians have an easy answer: Blame Yeltsin.
"After destroying parliament, Yeltsin wrote a new constitution to create a super-presidency," says Mr. Kremeniuk. "Putin has used that constitution without changing a single word. It was Yeltsin who replanted the seeds of autocracy in Russia."