Thursday, April 26, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Yeltsin’s Mission to Create a New Russian Identity Remains Unfinished

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 26 – Arguments about Boris Yeltsin’s place in history will not end until Russians escape from the identity “blind alley” in which they have been for much of the past 15 years and stop thinking about their country as a remnant of the Soviet Union, according to a Moscow commentator
In an essay posted online today, Sergei Markedonov, a specialist on ethnicity and identity issues, argues that the first Russian president’s mission, as yet unfinished, was to make Russians proud of their country and its role in destroying communism and comfortable with themselves (
There are compelling reasons to think that Yeltsin’s project will ultimately succeed, Markedonov continues. “Russian citizens do not now have and will not have any other state. The restoration of the USSR is impossible.” And consequently, the country they must come to terms with is the one Yeltsin “built from scratch.”
Despite many mistakes, the Moscow analyst suggests, Yeltsin made an enormous contribution to Russia’s development, one that all Russians should be proud of. Not only did he not take the kind of revenge on his opponents typical of earlier Russian and Soviet leaders, but he also did three things that are worth remembering always.
First and most important, Markedonov notes, Yeltsin’s management of both the end of communism and the breakup of the USSR meant “Russia did not repeat the experience of the Balkans.” He, not his successor, kept Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus from becoming nuclear powers and prevented violent disputes on republic borders.
This dog that didn’t bark, one that as a result has not attracted as much attention in Yeltsin’s obituaries as it deserves, Markedonov argues, “saved Russia from bloody confrontations with Ukraine over Crimea and the Donbas and with Kazakhstan over Northern and Eastern Kazakhstan (pre-revolutionary ‘Southern Siberia’).”
Second, and this too has not been stressed enough, Markedonov says, Yeltsin succeeded not only in “stopping six armed conflicts on the territory of the former USSR without the help of the United States or the European Union” but also secured international recognition for “Russian dominance on the post-Soviet space.”
That is not to say that Yeltsin did not make mistakes in this area and did not drive some of the post-Soviet states away from Moscow as a result, the Moscow commentator suggests. But it is to insist that Yeltsin did many of the things that Russians today are inclined and even encouraged to give credit to Vladimir Putin.
And third, Yeltsin played a large and generally unheralded role in the restoration of independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, something most Russians and people in the West do not remember and that many of the citizens of these countries now in NATO and EU have tended to forget.
“Where would the freedom of the Baltic countries and their ‘European tickets’ be if it had not been for the firm position of the Russian leader in 1991?” Markedonov asks rhetorically. “In the cold January days, when the West was quite passive about what was taking place [there],” Russia’s president backed “those struggling for independence.”
In saying that, Markedonov alludes to but does not describe the remarkable events of January 13, 1991. Following the killing of 14 Lithuanians by Soviet forces at the Vilnius TV tower, Yeltsin flew to Tallinn to sign agreements with Estonian and Latvian officials recognizing the right of those republics to be independent. (Lithuanian officials were unable to arrive in time to do so.)
Even more significant, Yeltsin issued an appeal, which Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcast to the peoples of the Soviet Union, calling on Russian officers and soldiers not to obey “illegal orders to fire on unarmed civilians or freely elected governments.”
Yeltsin’s statement, far tougher than those issued by Western governments, prevented a broader bloodbath in the Baltic countries and other independence-minded republics as well. But not surprisingly, many Soviet officials viewed what Yeltsin had done as sedition and demanded that something be done against the Russian president.
One idea they reportedly had was to blow Yeltsin’s plane up on its way back to Moscow. One official in Estonia who heard about that horrendous plot told Yeltsin about it and provided with him a car in which the Russian leader was driven to St. Petersburg the following morning and then put on a regular Aeroflot flight back to Moscow.
That official was the commandant of the Soviet airbase at Tartu, Major General Dzhokhar Dudayev, the man who was to become the first president of Chechnya-Ichkeria and who was killed on Yeltsin’s order five years later. That pattern too is part of Yeltsin’s unfinished legacy, although it is one that few Russians are yet prepared to accept.

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