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Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s First Elected President, Dies at 76

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Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin has died at the age of 76. Yeltsin came to power in 1991 as Russia’s first post-Soviet head of state replacing Mikhail Gorbachev. Critics blame Yeltsin for plunging his country into years of economic and political turmoil after he dissolved the Soviet Union. He also presided over the disastrous military campaign to crush Chechnya’s drive for independence. Nation publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel joins us to talk about Yeltsin’s legacy. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The body of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin is to lie in state in Moscow, ahead of a funeral on Wednesday. Yeltsin died Monday of heart failure at the age of 76. Boris Yeltsin came to power in 1991 as Russia’s first post-Soviet head of state, replacing Mikhail Gorbachev. He led the country’s chaotic transition from communism to a capitalist democracy before resigning in 1999.

Tributes to Yeltsin poured in from Western leaders upon news of his death. In Washington, President Bush said he “helped lay the foundations of freedom in Russia.” British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the former president a “remarkable man” who had fearlessly championed democracy and economic reform.

But critics blame Yeltsin for plunging his country into years of economic and political turmoil after he dissolved the Soviet Union. He also presided over the disastrous military campaign to crush Chechnya’s drive for independence. The Washington Post puts it like this: “Yeltsin was no towering democrat. In launching a war against the breakaway southern region of Chechnya in 1994, he was responsible for the violent deaths of more Russian citizens than any Kremlin leader since Joseph Stalin. As president, he tolerated, even authorized, the excesses of a system in some ways as corrupt and morally adrift as the one it replaced,” The Washington Post said.

Yeltsin will be buried in Moscow Wednesday, which has been declared a national day of mourning.

Katrina vanden Heuvel now joins us, publisher of The Nation magazine and expert on U.S.-Russia relations, joining us in the firehouse studio here in New York. Welcome to Democracy now!


AMY GOODMAN: Well, I’d like to talk to you about a number of issues, but let us start with Boris Yeltsin. Can you assess his career?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Boris Yeltsin was a man who squandered, in my view, the democratic possibilities he was given. In June 1991, he was elected president in the freest election in Soviet Russia. And he is known, Amy, as you know, in this country primarily for that iconic moment when he stood atop the tanks in August 1991 defying the coup plotters. He went to the parliament that day and said, “I am a man of the parliament.”

But he squandered the democratic possibilities, I believe, that Mikhail Gorbachev opened for Russia. He did so in three ways: He presided over the greatest fire sale in 20th century history, in my view, strip-mining the country; he launched the war against Chechnya, killing hundreds of thousands of Russian civilians and Chechens; and he presided over a corrosive poverty that to this day afflicts Russia.

And the other thing that I think we need to remember is that he abolished the Soviet Union. He abolished it in a forest with three men. And you can argue about whether the Soviet Union, we are better off today without the Soviet Union, but in that undemocratic unraveling of a country, we see today some of the legacy of that undemocratic moment.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, “in a forest with three men”?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Three men. With two other leaders of the former Soviet republics, of Ukraine and Belarus. In the Belovezh Forest, there was an unraveling of the Soviet Union. They signed a document. There was no referendum, as Gorbachev had tried to put through a year before. So I think all of those elements, particularly — Amy, two years later, after Boris Yeltsin had stood before the parliament and said, “I am a man of a parliament,” he launched with cannons and tanks, as you may recall, a destruction of the very parliament that had elected him.

In this country — let’s not forget, it’s very interesting to read the media today — most of the media in those Yeltsin years were boosters and cheerleaders of Yeltsin because, as so many Americans, particularly in, I think, our media, they wanted to see in Russia what they wanted to see, which was this transition to democracy and free markets. But it was far more complicated than that. And you see the kind of mea culpas in these editorials you just read. That line in The Washington Post is very strong, in terms of what Yeltsin did in Chechnya, comparing him to Joseph Stalin. But in those years, those Yeltsin years, it was Yeltsin as the guarantor of democracy.

But as one Russian journalist once quipped to me, Yeltsin in Russia today is viewed more as the guarantor of oligarchy than the guarantor of democracy. And that, I think, is how he is viewed by the majority of Russians, who associate him with the breakup of a country — they didn’t love the Soviet system — but the breakup of a country and an empire which they associated with, and also throwing the country into the greatest peacetime depression any nation has suffered and creating this small band of oligarchs with such enormous wealth, because they were given, in exchange for electing Yeltsin in 1996, the assets of this country — the great oil, gas and raw minerals of a country — in exchange for electing Yeltsin, who in 1996 understood that he might not have been elected without their help. And that election remains contested in Russian journalism today.

AMY GOODMAN: The response of people in Russia to his death?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, I was there about three weeks ago, but I can tell you that if nothing has changed since then, I think, for many Russians, the memory of that Yeltsin era is not a positive one. Amy, you have to understand that Yeltsin’s death, in my view, reminds us that the de-democratization of Russia didn’t begin with Putin, and that Putin is the inevitable consequence of Yeltsin and Yeltsinism. So think about how Russians relate to Yeltsin: If you look at what Putin represents, it’s the antithesis. It’s a man who has come back to take back those assets and to state control. It’s a man who has decided to take back the media, though it is, I think, inaccurate to argue that under Yeltsin the media was so free. What happened under Yeltsin is to some extent what we’ve seen in this country, where the media was given out to the oligarchical interests into private hands and was often manipulated for political purposes by the government.

So I think Russians associate him with this great pain and poverty and chaos, and they saw in Putin, a man — let’s not forget — who was essentially appointed by Yeltsin — the elections were rigged, by Putin, who — his first act was in a kind of Ford-Nixon move to give Yeltsin and his family immunity and from prosecution. They see in Putin a man who is restoring the greatness of the Russian state, whether we like it or not, and who is giving them some stability, a reprieve from the chaos they associate with the Yeltsin years.

Finally, the sad part of it is that Yeltsin and his band of merry reformers, those so touted by Larry Summers and Strobe Talbott and others in the Clinton administration, they gave democracy a bad name in Russia, because too many Russians today associate democracy with chaos, corruption and poverty.

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