Letter: Yeltsin: portrait of a hothead leading his country into chaos

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Sir: I write as one of those lucky enough to read the BBC Monitoring Services' daily Summary of World Broadcasts, available free to members of both Houses of Parliament.

This direct read-in to events in Russia gives a different picture from that given by the American and British press. Reports from the various horses' mouths show Yeltsin as indeed a courageous man, and deeply disillusioned with the Communist Party in which he was a leading figure. But it also shows him hot-headed, quarrelsome, vacillating, and without a thought in his head for representative democracy or the rule of law. Free markets, yes, he has been our man for that. For the rest, his cry 'I obey only the people' is warning enough.

The actual texts also show the parliament is not, as Yeltsin and much of the Western press claim, an assembly of 'hardliner' Communists: the hankerers after the past are a rather small minority. They were elected during Gorbachev's time, not Brezhnev's. To read the debates confirms what the Russian chairman of parliament, Ruslan Khasbulatov, says of them: their opinions run from authoritarian nationalist through old-style Communist to democratic socialist to market liberal. The Brezhnev constitution has been much amended, specifically to enshrine the 'Division of the Powers', and how this division is to operate is what the dispute is all about.

The deputies almost all agree that Yeltsin's sudden and planless destruction of the command economy was a mistake, and that it would be well to introduce some gradualism even now. This is what Mr Chernomyrdin, the new prime minister, has been trying to do.

The deputies' complaint against Yeltsin is not that he has abolished Communism, but that he has, with his Reaganism-Thatcherism, led the Russian people into a poverty unseen since the Civil War of 1918-20. The huge increases in violent crime and corruption are part of the chaos brought on by his own thoughtlessness and by the subservience of his yuppy entourage to recent Western dogma.

Like many apostates from one totalitarianism, Boris Yeltsin has gone to another extreme. In his television speech he proposed taking absolute power and refused to discuss his plans in advance with his equally elected vice-president, or with the chairman of the constitutional court.

From that, he has now backed away, but he has taken control of the press, radio and television 'for their own protection' and, perhaps most revealing of all, he has created a special new presidential guard, with a brand new uniform. Wise heads of state, as Bismarck knew, trust the whole army to protect them.

It is dangerous for the West, during the construction of democracy in Russia, to back any one leader. Democracy itself needs our support, not Yeltsin's person.



House of Lords

London, SW1

29 March

(Photograph omitted)