Yeltsin should feel proud: he kept the dream alive

Anne McElvoy says reports of the death of Russian capitalism are exaggerated
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The Independent Online
A RUSSIAN friend has just sent me the following e-mail from Moscow: "Someone showed me your column last week - you said you would bet your last rouble on Yeltsin surviving in office longer than Clinton. I bet you're wrong! But the rouble will be so worthless by the time Yeltsin goes that you won't suffer much of a loss."

The developments of the past week mean that I now have an even more devalued bet on a devalued Russian President. But then this is the third time in six years that the imminent demise of Boris Yeltsin has been announced. Each time, through health crises, fits of absentee drunkenness, the wanton bloodshed in Chechnya and previous economic crises, he has staggered on, in his stubborn, wounded-bear-like way.

This time though, things are different. Yeltsin is no longer master of his own destiny. On Friday, he announced that he intended to stay in power until the elections in 2000. But power has drained from him. He looks like a large, faded papier mache puppet, whose movements are erratically controlled by some external agency.

Events in Russia are dismal. But the West's response dismays me more. Fear of recession and the outbreak of global economic doldrums have led to an outburst of peevish fatalism about Russia. We want to write it off as a basket case: to consign to outer darkness a place we cannot understand and thus prefer to shake our heads about and despair. That is a luxury which Russians themselves cannot afford.

The fate of Russia is one of those subjects which causes the ideological spectrum to bend and blur. On the left, a perverse desire remains to prove that somewhere, anywhere, a market economy is not superior to a state model and that people are happier eating state-manufactured sausage and holidaying once every five years in trade union hostels than being exposed to the global markets.

The right can never quite make up its mind whether the economic liberalism it espouses elsewhere can hold up in Russia. In Britain and America especially, conservatives incline to the view that Russia is inherently and incurably "backward" and that the less we have to do with it the better.

Never before has the West been keener to admit - before it has actually happened - the total defeat of the economic system and values it claims to uphold. Headlines boldly announce the "death of capitalism in Russia". I don't know what the "death of capitalism" would look like. It is a remarkably resilient beast, even if not all its forms are beautiful or stable.

Newsnight, meanwhile, reverts to Cold War tradition by wheeling out the editor of Pravda at the top of its bulletin to tell us that the capitalist experiment is dead. The editor of the world's ur-Communist newspaper is not the man you would usually call on for a cool assessment of the future of the free market.

Yeltsin's seven years in office are now being described on the hour, every hour, as having been a disaster. It is perfectly rational to be depressed about the situation in Russia. But it is neither fair nor reasonable to dismiss the best part of seven years in office as a complete failure, still less to conclude that the values of liberal reform have been defeated in one fell swoop.

In order to speak of a failure, one must first have some idea of what success would look like. This is where I think that his detractors in the West are being particularly hard on Boris Yeltsin. He arrived in office at the most significant moment in the Russian century since the Bolshevik revolution and had to preside over four transitions simultaneously - the change from a centralised economy to a free market, from a Communist system of political organisation to a rudimentary democracy, from the security and might of the Soviet Union to the loose-jointed Commonwealth of Independent States, and the humiliating end of Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States.

On the first count, he has failed. Banks and business oligarchs moved into the unaccountable and obscure position the Communist Party once occupied. Russia's democratic instincts were still too poorly developed to create a bulwark against them. But it has taken Western democracies centuries and bitter struggles to evolve the kinds of checks and balances which stop, say, the High Street banks and privatised utilities ganging together to hold the government to ransom. Could he realistically have been expected to plant a secure political and economic system on the rotting corpse of Soviet Communism within six years?

I don't want to whitewash Yeltsin. He is an imperfect democrat - as he showed in his cavalier firing and hiring of his Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Much of the moral high ground and natural authority he had on acceding to power at the end of 1991 and fought so hard to maintain against his enemies, he squandered in succumbing to the generals' idiotic lust for war in Chechnya.

He has shown a patchy understanding of market economics and democracy, but always preserved a strong instinct which may yet turn out to be more important for all of us in the long term than a stock-market slump, namely an iron determination not to allow either the Communists' leader or the deranged chauvinist Vladimir Zhirinovsky into the Kremlin. He has long seen Chernomyrdin as the least worst hope for reform and his Prime Minister, while he will play to the hardliners in parliament to get himself ratified, is neither a fool nor a (total) economic illiterate. He knows that a future, lasting presidency will only be his if he delivers stabilisation, not hyperinflation.

The Yeltsin years changed Russia for ever and for the better. At one of his early low ebbs, I asked a rather sensible female deputy in the Duma if the reforms were saveable and she said "Of course: because the market has entered the soul of the Russian people." The juxtaposition of "soul" and "market' sounds odd to those of us in the West who are not die-hard libertarians. But the arrival of a market economy in Russia was a revelation. It meant the legalisation of the barter which had sustained people in the looking-glass world of Soviet command economics. Russians are natural entrepreneurs. It is the distortion of a meaningfully free market and the rise of a corrupt class of asset-strippers that offends and enrages them - what the disappointed reformer Boris Nemtsov who left the Kremlin this week calls "an ugly market, where competition is non- existent and monopolies run the country".

Under Yeltsin, the first post-Communist generation glimpsed for the first time the possibility of a better and more dignified life than state socialism could deliver. My brightest, most energetic and luckiest friends used these years to transform themselves from late-Soviet caterpillars into ambitious butterflies. Others knew that they themselves would not be the material beneficiaries of change, but fervently believed that their children should live in an open, prosperous Russia and enjoy greater freedoms and opportunities than they had done. These hopes remain, however battered and however distant their fulfilment. That they have survived thus far at all is something Boris Yeltsin can look back on with pride.