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    Volume 6 Issue 17 | May 4, 2007 |

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Boris Yeltsin and his Provincial World

Syed Badrul Ahsan

Women cry as they queue to pay their last respects to Russian ex-President Boris Yeltsin in Christ the Saviour cathedral in Moscow. Russians mourned their first post-Soviet leader, Boris Yeltsin, preparing a grandiose funeral for the flamboyant ex-president and debating the way he oversaw the painful birth of a new Russia. AFP PHOTO / VIKTOR DRACHEV

When he stood atop a tank in Moscow back in 1991, Boris Yeltsin was truly a hero out on the streets in defence of the state. As one of the leading politicians in the Communist Party, he had opted to oppose the men who, from within the party, had engineered the overthrow of Mikhail Gorbachev from the leadership of the country. In the event, the coup against Gorbachev collapsed, one of the reasons being the spirited resistance to it by Yeltsin and his friends. And yet, ironically, the end of the coup turned out to be the beginning of the end for Gorbachev himself. When he returned to Moscow to retake charge of the country, he looked exhausted and relieved. To many, he already belonged to the past. He was there but by Yeltsin's leave, which fundamentally meant that Yeltsin had turned out to be the man of the hour.

When Yeltsin died last week at the age of seventy six, it was not so much the formal end of an era as it was a coming down of the curtain on the life of a colourful and yet divisive man. The death of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism, while attributable in a big way to Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika, was more a direct consequence of the role Yeltsin played in turning against the coup and then turning against the Communist Party, whose loyal member he had been, in the summer of 1991. In the weeks after the abortive coup against President Gorbachev, Yeltsin left a whole world worried about the strange goings-on in the Soviet Union. In public, he wagged his finger at Gorbachev, telling him loudly that he was not going fast enough in his reforms programme. It was a weakened, embarrassed Gorbachev who suffered through the indignity. Only six years earlier, as a young new general secretary of the Communist Party, Gorbachev had taken the world by storm. He was smarter than Ronald Reagan, more dynamic than George Bush senior and he had extricated his soldiers from Afghanistan. In 1991, though, he was a spent force. Soon, the Soviet Union would come apart. In time, Boris Yeltsin took charge of the new Russian Federation as its president.

A woman lays flowers at the grave of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin at Novodevichie cemetery in Moscow. Russia bid a solemn farewell to Boris Yeltsin, its first post-Soviet leader, in a funeral presided over by some two dozen white-robed priests, with a crowd of dignitaries including President Vladimir Putin and two former US leaders in attendance. AFP PHOTO / VIKTOR DRACHEV

There was garrulity about Boris Yeltsin. He talked incessantly, even when in a state of the tipsy. His drinking remains legendary, particularly for the embarrassments it caused him. Once, during a stopover in Dublin, he left his team red-faced when his drunken state did not allow him to step out of the aircraft. On the red carpet at the foot of the gangway, the Irish prime minister and his cabinet waited to greet the Russian leader. In the event, the aircraft took off with President Yeltsin still in a state of intoxication. There were times when Yeltsin resorted to populism, as when he once jumped on to a stage to join a troupe of young dancers busy in performance. He danced badly, but he danced with plebeian vigour. There was something quite boorish about his manners and mannerisms, but they all came encompassed in worrisome simplicity. Yeltsin, for some, was a reminder of the times when Nikita Khrushchev governed the Soviet Union. Khrushchev had a rusticity about him that impressed people. He cracked jokes and yet could suddenly turn serious when the moment demanded it. These were character attributes absent in Yeltsin. His sense of humour failed to draw hilarity out of his audience. His presence, while heavy, did not quite have the spontaneity that underlined the Khrushchev personality.

It was the politics of power, however, that would eventually determine Yeltsin's place in history. As a rising star in the Communist Party, he did not shirk from carrying out orders. And yet there came a time, in the late 1980s, when he openly revolted against his party. As president of Russia, he enjoyed the lavish attention paid to him by the West, which clearly expected him to bring his country into the capitalist circuit. Yeltsin's idea of capitalism was a simple opening of the doors to business for Russia's robber barons. He did not comprehend the dangerous consequences of impulsive action that would leave his country gasping for breath. In his times, beggars appeared on Moscow streets and prostitutes prowled the dimly lit business districts looking for customers in need of paid sex. The fall of communism was supposed to have brought democracy and economic prosperity to Russia. It brought neither. Economically, Yeltsin transformed Russia into a state waiting at the doorsteps of the West, begging bowl in hand.

In political terms, the Yeltsin who defended liberty in 1991 felt little remorse in striking out at democracy as president. On his orders, soldiers and policemen fired into the parliament buildings to smoke his political rivals out. Vice President Alexander Rutskoi and Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, two men unable to accept Yeltsin's growing authoritarianism and intent on putting up resistance to his bad governance, found themselves out in the cold, humiliated and defeated. It was on Yeltsin's watch that Chechnya grew into a boil, before bursting and taking on wider dimensions.

The legacy Boris Yeltsin leaves behind is one that could have been his had he provided more purposeful leadership to his country. He destroyed the Soviet Union, sent communism packing. And out of the debris, he built nothing. It was the provincial in him that held him back from becoming a better leader. The ramifications of his cavalier presidency are now being felt by Vladimir Putin as he struggles to find a place for Russia in the sun.


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