Vienna, February 1 – In a posting on his Ekho Moskvy blog today, Boris Nemtsov, who is a leader of the Solidarity Movement, outlines ten ways in which Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first president, was different and better than his successor, Vladimir Putin, a list that has already sparked outraged reactions from many of the latter’s partisans.
First of all, Nemtsov says, Yeltsin “inherited a bankrupted Soviet Union: there was no money, no gold reserves, no bread and now fuel.” Moreover, oil prices were relatively low. Putin on the other hand came to office when the Russian economy was growing and when the price of oil was rising to new records (echo.msk.ru/blog/nemtsov_boris/746374-echo/).
Second, he points out, Yeltsin dealt with his opponents in a very different way than Putin. He released from jail the leaders of the August 1991 putsch and the October 1993 rising, even though the latter would have shot him or confined him for life. Putin in contrast has continued to work to ensure that Mikhail Khodorkovsky will remain in jail for a long time to come.
Third, Yeltsin respected the media and when Vlad Listyev was killed in 1995, the president came to Ostankino and cried, asking the nation to forgive him for not being able to prevent that crime. After Ana Politkovskaya was killed, Putin in contrast said her death had done more harm than her publications.
Fourth, Nemtsov notes, “Yeltsin gave Russia a Constitution” – and “one no worse than the French and American.” But Putin gutted it, destroying in terms the institutions it provided for including among others “elections, independent courts, a free media, federalism and local self-administration.”
Fifth, Yeltsin was “insanely proud that he returned to Russia the Flag of freedom.” Not only did he conduct the revolution of 1991 under that banner but he created Flag Day.” Putin, on the other hand, “arrests people because they are carrying the Russian flag in the pedestrian zone of the Arbat.”
Sixth, Nemtsov continues, Yeltsin made Glinka’s patriotic hymn “the symbol of free democratic Russia.” Putin “returned the Stalinist hymn. Nemtsov said that when he told Putin that this showed a lack of respect for the millions of Stalin’s victims, Putin responded that the songs of a country must be like what the country is.
Seventh, according to the Solidarity leader, Yeltsin developed “good relations with [Russia’s] neighbors,” not entering into “gas wars, the disruption of diplomatic relations or threats.” Putin has been just the reverse. And now all around Russia are “enemies” rather than allies.
Eighth, Yeltsin began by appointing governors but yielded to the call of the governors that they be elected. Putin in contrast, “making use of the nightmarish terrorist act in Beslan in 2004 [for his own political purposes], did away with elections for the governors and destroyed federalism.”
Ninth, the two presidents displayed a very different attitude toward personal power and continuing in office. On New Years eve in 1999, Yeltsin voluntarily retired, but Putin has linked himself to power and taken steps to ensure that no one can challenge him, a clear indication that he “does not intend to leave it for anywhere else.”
And tenth, Yeltsin and Putin are fated to have a very different historical reputation. “Beyond doubt,” Nemtsov says, “Yeltsin is a complex and contradictory historical figure.” But above all else, he was “the founder of the new Russia” and he will be remembered for that. Putin on the other hand, will be recalled only “as a corrupt dictator whose rule was damned by the people.”
Not surprisingly, Nemtsov’s comparison of the two has outraged many, especially those who blame Yeltsin for destroying the USSR and for Russia’s difficulties after that. They have recorded their views in comments appended to his list, but none of them succeeds in calling into question in any fundamental way his observations, a useful thing to remember on this 80th anniversary of Yeltsin’s birth