Can Russia Change?

Russian President Yeltsin (C), Defence Minister Grachev (R) and Interior Minister Yerin 


There was celebration in the State Department when Boris Yeltsin won re-election last July, but polls show that in Moscow and other Russian cities and towns there was no joy, only relief, a sense of having dodged a return to the past and the Communist Party. Political celebration, after all, usually welcomes a beginning, and the Yeltsin regime, everyone understood, was no beginning at all. Yeltsin had accomplished a great deal both as an outsider and as a president, but now, in his senescence, he represented the exhaustion of promise.

To prevail, Yeltsin had been willing to do anything, countenance anything, promise anything. Without regard for his collapsed budget, he doled out subsidies and election-year favors worth billions of dollars; he gave power to men he did not trust, like the maverick general Aleksandr Lebed; he was willing to hide from, and lie to, the press in the last weeks of the campaign, the better to obscure his serious illness.

Power in Russia is now adrift, unpredictable, and corrupt. Just three months after appointing Lebed head of the security council, Yeltsin fired him for repeated insubordination, instantly securing the general's position as martyr, peacemaker, and pretender to the presidency. On the night of his dismissal, Lebed giddily traipsed off to see a production of Aleksei Tolstoy's Ivan the Terrible. "I want to learn how to rule," he said.

In the new Russia, freedom has led to disappointment. If the triumph of 1991 seemed the triumph of liberal democrats unabashedly celebrating a market economy, human rights, and Western values, Yeltsin's victory in 1996 was distinguished by the rise of a new class of oligarchs. After the election, the bankers, media barons, and industrialists who had financed and in large measure run the campaign got the rewards they wanted: positions in the Kremlin, broadcasting and commercial licenses, and access to the national resource pile. Before 1991, these oligarchs had been involved mainly in fledgling small businesses -- some legitimate, some not

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