BORIS YELTSIN is a man who makes many people anxious. In the United States where Bush administration officials continue to express apprehension about where Mr. Yeltsin is taking Russia and the Soviet Union.The charismatic Russian leader's emergence at the head of the democratic revolution sweeping the Soviet Union seemed at first to calm fears that he was nothing more than a power-hungry demagogue. But in the aftermath of the failed Aug. 19-21 coup, with talk of a new Russian imperialism in the air here, criticism of Yeltsin picked up again. "Yeltsin is basically power hungry," the New York Times quoted one American official saying. "He has no program of his own." This perception of Yeltsin is not new. But it reveals a flawed understanding of the events of the past year and half in the Soviet Union. During that period, which began with Yeltsin's surprise election as the chairman of the Supreme Soviet (parliament) of the Russian Federation on May 29, 1990, the Russian leader has followed a remarkably consistent course. He has pursued a coherent program with determination and, at times, tactical wisdom. The Soviet Union that is emerging from the wreckage of the Communist state is almost precisely the one that Yeltsin has been seeking. From his first day in office, Yeltsin has articulated a view of the Soviet Union as a confederation, formed from the bottom up by sovereign republics without a commanding center. He has sought radical economic reform, a quick move to a market economy, and democratization of political life. And he has called on Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to oust the conservatives ar ound him and to form a coalition government with the democrats and republican leaders.
Understanding Yeltsin To understand the swirl of images of Boris Yeltsin - populist, nationalist, demagogue - it is useful to listen to what the Siberian politician has been saying. From the moment Mr. Gorbachev failed to block his election, Yeltsin advocated a new concept of the relationship between the republics and the central government. He moved quickly, for example, to declare the sovereignty of Russia, following the path taken by the Baltic republics. "We must hold out against the dictates of the center," Yeltsin said in his first press conference on May 30 last year. "Our state, country, union will be strong only through strong republics, and the stronger and more independent the union republics are, the stronger the center, the stronger our union will be, conversely." After meeting with Gorbachev, Yeltsin spoke to the Russian parliament on June 13, where he expanded his concept of a new union. "Each state will determine its place along a path ranging ... from a federation to a confederation," he said. "The level of independence will be determined by each one of the sovereign states that will belong to the union on the basis of a union treaty. In places it will be a process differentiated between a federation and a confederation.... It is a process that includes democr atization ... and indeed a reform of the state set-up of our union."
New economic plan Gorbachev, speaking to the Congress earlier this week, described the plan drawn up by himself and 10 republican leaders as a "voluntary" union. "Let it be possible to have a federative membership on some questions, confederative on others, and associative on a third. I think that the formula 'the Union of Sovereign States' enables us to take all that into consideration." Later, in June 1990, Yeltsin began to push a new 500-day program for radical economic reform, drawn up by economist Grigory Yavlinsky. He moved at simultaneously to conclude bilateral economic and political treaties with other republics. This would create "a kind of horizontal complex without a vertical structure, without a state planning committee and so on," he told a press conference June 26. In early July last year, the Soviet Communist Party convened its 28th Party Congress. Speculation was widespread that Gorbachev would step down from the Party leadership, freeing himself from that political millstone. He did not, but Yeltsin rose dramatically at the end of the Party Congress on July 6, to resign from the party. More than a year before the Party conservative leadership tried its August putsch, Yeltsin distanced himself from them.
Terse warning "The last years have shown that it has not proved possible to neutralize the activity of the party's conservative forces. On the contrary, we have spoken too much about us all being in the same boat, on the same side of the barricades, that we are fighting shoulder to shoulder with identical thinking.... This position has created a regime of security for the conservative forces in the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] and has strengthened their conviction that it is possible to gain revenge." Early that August, Gorbachev agreed to form a joint group with Yeltsin to draft a radical reform plan, based on the 500-day program. But later that month, Gorbachev moved to compromise with a more conservative plan offered by his government. "People are tired of waiting," Yeltsin warned in a Sept. 1 press conference. "For two years now we have been talking about this program for the transition to market economy, yet nothing is being done. There must be one single program. You cannot cross a hedgehog with a snake...." Yeltsin offered the first of what would be many versions of a proposal to form a new government structure, uniting republican leaders and the Soviet president, to carry out reform. "It ought to be a council of the presidents of union and sovereign states," he said, describing the State Council finally created Thursday by the Congress of People's Deputies. But by October, Gorbachev had backed off from the radical reform plan, opting for a vague combined program. This is doomed to failure, Yeltsin told the Russian parliament Oct. 16. There are now three options, he continued: for Russia to go on its own; to form a "real coalition," a cabinet in which some ministers are proposed by Russia and some by Gorbachev; or to bide their time for six months, he suggested, until it becomes clear that the Soviet plan was mistaken "and again propose sensible economic ste ps." Events followed the third course. Gorbachev moved steadily to the right. A bloody military crackdown on Baltic nationalist governments followed in January, which Yeltsin openly opposed. On Feb. 19, 1991, Yeltsin made a rare appearance on Soviet television where he countered charges that he was seeking to dismember the Soviet Union. Yeltsin also struck back, blaming Gorbachev for throwing away the chance for the 500-day plan. "What is now taking place is a rolling-back in the opposite direction.... After such cooperation I think that my personal mistake was excessive trust in the president.... I distance myself from the position and policy of the president and advocate his immediate resignation, the handing over of power to a collective body, the Federation Council of the republics."
Support from miners Yeltsin, backed by a nationwide miners' strike supporting his political demands, resisted Communist attempts to remove him from office in March. On April 23, Gorbachev held a historic meeting with nine republican leaders and agreed to a new version of the union treaty which would give significant power to the republics. Yeltsin consolidated his position by holding free, direct elections for the Russian presidency on June 12. In his major campaign speech, in Moscow June 1, Yeltsin stressed that the events of previous months had proven that "the country and its citizens are not prepared to turn back." The democratic and workers movement, organized in a wave of mass meetings in Russia during those months, "made the president also understand, after all, that if he will not lean on the 'left shoulder' he will be left with no chance at all." "It is not just in Russia that changes are taking place," Yeltsin noted, "the situation is developing in the same direction in other republics." The concept of a union of sovereign states "is not an abstraction or a model, but a definition of a real process." He warned that "any attempt to retreat ... back to a unitary state will result in large losses for Russia and the Union," a specter almost realized by the coup plotters just two months later.