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9-08-2015, 23:44

GORBACHEV, YELTSIN AND PUTIN

The changes that took place in the Soviet Union after Mikhail Gorbachev succeeded to the position of general secretary of the Communist Party and to the leadership of the country in 1985 astonished the world. Gorbachev set a new agenda for relations with the Warsaw Pact allies and allowed Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary to choose their own internal and external relations. It was the end of communist one-party states, so jealously defended by Big Brother for four decades. Even more astonishingly Gorbachev laid to rest the ghost of a revanchist Germany and allowed the East Germans to choose unification with the West. His policies went a long way to dispelling Western fears of the Soviet Union. Disarmament lay at the heart of the Kremlin’s new policies. ‘Gorby’ was welcomed and applauded in the streets of Bonn and amid the skyscrapers of New York. People in the West pressured their governments to respond more quickly and warmly to the Soviet leader’s offer of disarmament and peace, and Gorbachev’s genuine desire to end the Cold War finally overcame Western suspicions. The Warsaw Pact was dissolved and a united Germany joined NATO. The Cold War ended in 1991 and the Soviet Union and the US began working towards common aims in the Middle East, Asia and Europe. Gorbachev outlined his ideas for radical change in his book Perestroika, published in 1987 as a paperback all over the world, its subtitle New Thinking for Our Country and the World. In it, Gorbachev explains his aims to ‘restructure’ and reform Soviet society, to rekindle the initiative and personal responsibility of every Soviet citizen. Corruption and inefficiency would be ended, the falsehood that cloaked the oppression of the people – who were ‘guaranteed’ constitutional freedoms that existed only on paper – would be purged. The twin of perestroika or ‘restructuring’ was glasnost or ‘openness’. ‘Restructuring’ and ‘openness’ were mild words for Gorbachev’s objectives which, in the context of Soviet history, were truly revolutionary. The people would be granted genuine legal freedoms and the right to criticise, to express their views, to choose on merit (by exercising their votes) between rival candidates for important political functions. Did Gorbachev indeed intend finally to rid the Soviet Union of the ideology of the Russian Revolution and all its works? A careful reading of Perestroika reveals the schism in Gorbachev’s thinking which was there from the start. He was not a democrat in the Western sense or a convert to the view that capitalism would rescue the Soviet Union from its economic backwardness. He was a socialist reformer, inspired by beliefs that were in line with Western idealism, that is beliefs in individual civic rights and freedoms, and he exerted all his power and employed all his talents to allow the Soviet people to gain them for the first time in Soviet history. The distinguished dissidents Anatoly Sharansky and Andrei Sakharov were released, from prison and from exile, respectively, in 1986. But he also rejected capitalism. ‘Capitalism’, he declared in a speech in February 1986, ‘regarded the birth of socialism as an error of history which had to be corrected at any cost by any means.’ Perestroika, he wrote, did not signify a ‘disenchantment with socialism’, and was not motivated by a ‘crisis for its ideals and ultimate goals. Nothing could be further from the truth than such interpretations’. In the Soviet Union’s internal and external policies much needed to be changed and improved. But Gorbachev was not about to lead the Soviet Union on the path that Czechoslovakia or Poland were following. The Czechs and Poles saw as their model the Western parliamentary multiparty system, together with a market economy dominated by private ownership of land and industry. Gorbachev rejected ‘bourgeois capitalism’. The Soviet Union’s socialist ideals were not to be called into question, nor was the essential cohesion of the USSR. For all his radicalism, Gorbachev intended to place limits on ‘new political thinking’. But was the Soviet economy reformable if it clung to what Gorbachev regarded as unchallengeable – socialism? Zbigniew Brzezinski, once President Carter’s national security adviser, wrote a remarkable book just before the revolutionary upheavals in central and Eastern Europe entitled The Grand Failure: The Birth and Death of Communism in the Twentieth Century in which he forecast the end of communism. Gorbachev agreed with Brzezinski on the wasted years, on the lack of productivity of Soviet labour and on the inefficient use of resources, but for Gorbachev these spelt not the death of communism but the need for renewal, for perestroika and glasnost as the engines of change. Communism had simply not reached its full potential. This faith prevented Gorbachev from seeking to reform the Soviet economy and its politics as fundamentally as he transformed the Soviet Union’s external relationships. Internally, his policies revealed hesitations and ambiguities as the economy shuddered from bad to worse. In the towns, queues for essential foodstuffs and goods lengthened, the black market and ‘free market’ flourished, and it became difficult to distinguish between the two. The reform of the party and its corrupt bosses had the side-effect of loosening discipline; glasnost had gone beyond healthy criticism to challenge the fundamentals of the Soviet state. Each of the republics became determined to do what was best for itself, and ethnic strife undermined the cohesion of the Union. Better economic conditions and a clearer policy that delivered results might have held the Soviet people together in the absence of repressive force. But worsening conditions fuelled strife, and nationalism is such a primitive and powerful force that its repression for decades had left it ready to explode. In 1985 as Gorbachev began his enormous task of radically changing the Soviet Union he was supported by a reformist minority in the party, but he also faced a majority in key positions who, though persuaded of the need for some change, were not ready for a revolution entailing the loss of their powers and privileges. Gorbachev therefore had to work against the prevailing sentiment of the majority. He improvised with dexterity until the juggling came to grief. He outmanoeuvred his opponents and displayed dazzling political skills as he altered party and state structures, changed their names and their functions, introduced new electoral procedures and created new bodies. All in all, it was a virtuoso performance. It left the Soviet people breathless but in the end disillusioned as standards of living dropped precipitously after 1987. To underline the extent of his accomplishment, it may be helpful briefly to examine the structures of state and party inherited by Gorbachev. Though the different party bodies were supposed to be chosen democratically from the grass roots upwards, the reverse was true; they were appointed from the top down, except for the leading position of the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, who was chosen from among the Politburo members, though formally the Politburo recommended and the Central Committee approved. Gorbachev was ‘approved’ on 11 March 1985. The Politburo consisted of ten full and six candidate members who in theory were ‘elected’ by the Central Committee of 319 full and 151 candidate members meeting normally every six months. The Central Committee also ‘elected’ the Secretariat, whose head was the second secretary, deputy to the general secretary. The Secretariat of eleven members controlled twenty departments which supervised 109 government ministries. A network of republican, regional, city, town and district committees spanned the Soviet Union, dependent on the Central Committee’s Secretariat bureaucracy of some 3,000 employees. It is important to note that until 1985 the party supervised the ministries, which were also responsible to a prime minister and government ministers. Thus there was dual control of ministries by the government and the party, supposedly coordinated by the general secretary. The general secretary was also chairman of the USSR parliament, the USSR Supreme Soviet, which was little more than a ceremonial body, listening annually to the general secretary and dutifully applauding all he said. Carbon-copy supreme soviets and soviets fanned out in republics, cities, towns and districts. This structure was supplemented by other bodies. At irregular occasions a conference of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union could be called; the eighteenth such conference had been convened in 1941; Gorbachev used the nineteenth, called in 1988, to make far-reaching changes to party structures. Finally, it was also possible to call a congress of the CPSU, which also met irregularly when the general secretary wished to call one. Gorbachev used two such congresses, the twenty-seventh in 1986 and the twenty-eighth in 1990, as springboards for his reforms. During his first years of power, Gorbachev encouraged pressure from below to win support for his reforms and to overcome party inertia and opposition. But here he trod a thin line between the imperatives of keeping popular protest under control and of reassuring the party leadership that he was not dismantling the Soviet communist system. Economic change necessitated a reform of the party itself, a reform of the old power structures, the KGB, the army and the nomenklatura – the nomenklatura being the means by which the party elite controlled the key positions in the administration, the judiciary, industry, agriculture and education. Gorbachev’s major effort at ‘democratic’ reform was to inject some grass-roots participation in the filling of the lower nomenklatura vacancies. This is what he meant by the democratisation of the Soviet state. But from the start it was questionable whether the party could ever regain the respect of the people, having for decades been a virtually autonomous self-appointed group within the state whose senior functionaries enjoyed many privileges denied to the rest. During Gorbachev’s first five years a plethora of meetings, conferences and congresses took place, their open debates televised for the Russian people in an unprecedented attempt to mobilise and educate public opinion. Gorbachev set the pace in speeches that were widely reported in 1985. In the Central Committee, which had endorsed him as general secretary, he had to move cautiously: it was crucial for him to build up support there and in the Politburo. In his first year he replaced two-thirds of the key leaders at the top and continued to make changes in later years. But this did not remove all opposition to his views, as the dramatic events of August 1991 were to show. At the April 1985 meeting of the Central Committee, the blueprint of perestroika was agreed and some practical reforms undertaken. In an attempt to make the central ministries more efficient, rival departments were eliminated: in agriculture six separate ministries were combined into one super-ministry with 20,000 staff cuts; two other super-ministries were created in the key areas of machine-building and computers. Unfortunately the ministries themselves were equipped with computers whose input and output remained flawed – they could not cope with the complexities of the economy. On 25 February 1986, the Twenty-Seventh Congress of the Communist Party opened in Moscow. The streets were festooned with slogans, ‘The Party and the People Are One’, which was certainly not true. After its ten-day session the Congress accepted Gorbachev’s blueprint for halfhearted reform of the socialist economy, but concrete reforms of the party were largely blocked. Another failure was an attempt to revive Khrushchev’s rule that no party official could serve more than fifteen years and that one-third of the members on all committees had to change every five years. This meant that the majority of the long-serving party officials of the Brezhnev era would remain in place, but their privileges were reduced over the next three years, they became more accountable above and below, and corrupt practices became more dangerous. Millions of party workers thus felt nothing for Gorbachev’s reforms but resentment and had little personal interest in lifting a finger to further them. In April 1986, soon after the Twenty-Seventh Congress, disaster struck the Soviet Union: an explosion took place within the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. The Ukraine was severely affected by radiation: hundreds were killed, the health of thousands more was affected for years to come, and the rich farming land was severely polluted. Moreover, the damage was a major setback for the Soviet economy. Where was glasnost then, as Gorbachev and the Kremlin hesitated for days before revealing the truth about the nuclear fallout spreading through Scandinavia to Western Europe? The successor republics of the Soviet Union have many nuclear reactors built to the same design which they cannot do without. They remain potential time-bombs. Yet Gorbachev showed himself to be a very different leader from his predecessors. There was a new openness and humanity, and an air of excitement about changes to come, but little was actually achieved in 1985 and 1986 to improve the life of the average Soviet citizen. The Gorbachev media image promised much but there was a danger that expectations would soon outrun performance. Even so, there were real signs of change. Glasnost was ending the persecution of humanrights activists, most notably of Sakharov, released from his Siberian exile in December 1986. A new foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, was appointed in July 1985, when the old Cold War warrior Andrei Gromyko was replaced and kicked upstairs into a ceremonial presidency. In October 1986 the general secretary met Reagan at the Reykjavik summit and proposed complete nuclear disarmament; this breathtaking suggestion came to nothing because Reagan would not accept Gorbachev’s condition of confining the US ‘Star Wars’ Strategic Defence Initiative to the laboratory. Yet it proved not the end of detente but the beginning. As Gorbachev was breaking new ground at home and abroad, he also faced fierce resistance from two, opposed, sides. Yegor Ligachev, the powerful second secretary of the party, voiced misgivings about the direction of reform. For Boris Yeltsin, Moscow’s active party chief and a member of the Politburo, Gorbachev’s economic and political reforms were far too hesitant. Yeltsin (a former Ligachev protégé before being taken up by Gorbachev) and Ligachev clashed bitterly in the Politburo. Ligachev was determined to destroy the political influence of the now radical Moscow leader, who had been denouncing party privileges, corruption and even what he called the new personality cult of the general secretary. In the Central Committee Yeltsin forced a showdown, announcing at its meeting in October 1987 his intention to resign from the Politburo. Gorbachev was furious. The outward appearance of unity of the Central Committee had been broken on the eve of the annual November celebration of the Russian Revolution. Yeltsin, a sick man at the time, probably suffering from heart trouble, was obliged to go into hospital. The streak of ruthlessness in Gorbachev is revealed by what happened next. Yeltsin was forced to leave hospital to attend a meeting of the Moscow party committee; he was humiliated and sacked. It was Ligachev’s revenge and triumph. But Yeltsin’s disgrace also marks the beginning of the bitter rivalry, personal and political, that set Yeltsin against Gorbachev. For the time being Yeltsin was cast into the political wilderness. His re-emergence was to change the course of Soviet history. In 1987 Gorbachev felt secure enough to begin to push through startling political and structural changes to the party and the state. In January, he proposed to the Central Committee that deputies should not simply be appointed to local regional and republican soviets by the party apparat – the people should participate and should be allowed a genuine choice of candidates. What was more, the deputies need not be party hacks but could be professionals, and they should be chosen by the people in a secret ballot. It was not democracy yet, for the candidates would all be vetted and had to be approved by an official selection committee, but for the Soviet Union it was a vital break with the past. Similar elections were to be held in factories to select managers. Gorbachev also proposed the holding of another, the nineteenth, national party conference. The year 1987 also witnessed cautious initiatives in the field of economic reform. Gorbachev contemplated some form of leasehold of agricultural land. Small private businesses were allowed to start; a few individuals became wealthy. The free-enterprise cooperative movement grew from small beginnings to 133,000 concerns in 1989, employing 3 million people, but they were constrained from developing fully. The state, directly or indirectly, was still the employer of the overwhelming mass of the Soviet peoples, and it was still the most important customer. Attempts to make the state sector of the economy more efficient by such measures as the Law of State Enterprises in June 1987, which removed the detailed control of central planners, ended in disaster. Reform was slow and half-hearted. Prices were not set by the market and the consumer but by the state planners. Genuine cost accounting was lacking. This, coupled with less draconian party control, threatened the economy with the worst of both worlds: it was no longer comprehensively planned nor was it a market economy. The government continued to print money to ease workers’ discontent and so, with too many roubles chasing too few goods, produced skyhigh prices on the black and free markets; meanwhile, deliveries at state prices were diminishing, as the goods were illegally diverted to the more profitable free market. Resistance to more fundamental and rapid reform was strong. The radical reformers and economists such as Yeltsin were locked in battle with the conservatives and reactionaries. Gorbachev now inclined to caution. Another serious problem was surfacing in 1987 – nationalist and ethnic unrest in the republics. In August that year there were large-scale demonstrations in the Baltic republics, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which had been annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 after a pact concluded with Hitler. In the following year the demand for autonomy grew stronger. The Estonian parliament claimed the right to veto laws passed by the Supreme Soviet on national issues. In the Caucasus the Christian Armenians of Nagorno- Karabakh became embroiled in internecine conflict with Muslim Azerbaijan, in whose republic they formed an enclave; demonstrations followed and blood was shed. The troubles spread to the republic of Armenia, and Moscow ceased to be fully in control. The ethnic conflicts presented a serious threat to Gorbachev’s reforms because they were likely to provoke a conservative backlash against the greater freedom from central party control which lay at the heart of his perestroika; he told the Armenians they were stabbing him in the back. He also recognised that to reopen now the question of frontiers between the republics threatened unstoppable conflict. He was therefore unsympathetic to the nationalist agitation, whether it arose in the Caucasus or in the Baltic. Gorbachev achieved a major international success in 1987. After the Reykjavik failure, negotiations between Washington and Moscow continued. By the close of the year agreement was reached on getting rid of two whole classes of nuclear missiles, those of intermediate and short range. A treaty recording their agreement in principle was signed in Washington by Reagan and Gorbachev. It was an important moment: confidence was being built up. The Nineteenth Party Conference, summoned by Gorbachev, brought on 28 June 1988 to Moscow from all over the country 5,000 party members, most of them conservatives. Despite all the efforts of the Communist Party organisation, a minority of radicals had made it too. Among them was Boris Yeltsin, who secured his election in Karelia. Nor had the elections of delegates everywhere been the tame pre-ordained affairs of the past. There were public demonstrations in a number of cities against the party’s tactics – that in Moscow’s Pushkin Square attracted worldwide attention. Radicals within the party had formed the Democratic Union, whose objective was to create a multi-party democratic parliamentary system. Many of these were among the 2,000 people who had gathered in Pushkin Square. Heavy-handed police attempts to remove the most militant demonstrators were caught by the television cameras, as was the crowd’s courageous insistence on what were supposed to be guaranteed legal rights. Gorbachev presided over the Conference, doing his best to appear even-handed between the large majority of communist conservatives and passive middle-of-the-roaders, on the one hand, and the small group of radicals, whose undoubted star was Yeltsin, on the other. Gorbachev now unfolded his radical reform plans for the party. The party Secretariat would no longer supervise government ministries; in this way party and state would be separated. The Supreme Soviet would be abolished, to be replaced by a Congress of People’s Deputies. Two-thirds of its members would be elected from a list of candidates approved by electoral committees; one-third were to be nominated – 100 by the Communist Party, the remainder by a variety of social organisations ranging from the Academy of Sciences, which was allocated twenty seats, to the Society of Stamp Collectors and the Red Cross. It was a huge body of 2,250 members. Its main function besides listening to speeches during its meetings (over just two or three days a year) was to elect a (new) Supreme Soviet of 400 to 450 members, chosen from the deputies – a working parliament in session for some eight months a year. The head of state, responsible for the government, foreign policy and defence, as well as for the party, would be the chairman of the Supreme Soviet. Gorbachev persuaded the party conference to approve his plans, which enabled these constitutional reforms to be implemented in time for the Congress of People’s Deputies to be elected in the spring of 1989. The proceedings of the Conference were televised, providing a dramatic illustration of the debate that Gorbachev’s democratisation was encouraging in the Soviet Union. It was a spectacle unprecedented in Soviet history. Most notable was the last day of the conference, when the bulky figure of Boris Yeltsin insisted on being heard from the rostrum. Gorbachev, presiding, could have prevented him from speaking, but he chose not to. Yeltsin argued for faster democratic progress, genuine elections and the prosecution of corrupt Communist Party bosses, the ‘millionaire bribetakers’. Perestroika, he advocated, should first achieve success in one or two essential areas before it was extended to others; the people, he said, were losing faith, dismayed by the lack of progress. Ligachev, the arch-conservative, rebutted Yeltsin’s arguments and tried to ridicule him. He also denied, unconvincingly, that the party bosses enjoyed unwarranted luxuries. But the Soviet peoples listening to the debate throughout the USSR knew who was telling the truth. Through the power of the media and by his courageous confrontation Boris Yeltsin had again catapulted himself to national attention as the ‘alternative’ reformer to Gorbachev, and his following grew. At its close the Conference tamely approved Gorbachev’s constitutional proposals as the lesser of the evils presented to them. Obedience to the general secretary’s will was still the norm. The habits of dictatorship served Gorbachev the reformer. ‘Democratisation’ was, for Gorbachev, creating not just a conflict between the communist conservatives like Ligachev, who feared that the party would lose control of the country, and the radicals, who accused Gorbachev of wishing to stop at a halfway stage between the old party system and genuine democracy. Gorbachev’s reforms were also creating a clash with independent republics opposed to the Kremlin’s central domination of the Union. In the Baltic republics this independence movement had rapidly gathered strength. The anniversary of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, which had delivered the three Baltic republics, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, into the Soviet sphere, prior to their absorption in 1940 and 1941 into the Soviet Union, became the occasion for denunciation. A human chain linked the three republics in a spectacular demonstration of solidarity. Popular fronts were formed between independent-minded communists and nationalists in the three states, the most forceful being the Lithuanian Sajudis. Tentative declarations of sovereignty in all three countries were condemned by Gorbachev as ‘nationalist excesses’. Relations between the Baltic representatives and Moscow continued to deteriorate throughout the year. Gorbachev believed that he could not give way without raising similar claims in the Union’s other republics. He would go no further than holding out a promise of a measure of economic autonomy, but this did not satisfy the nationalists. Nationalism was not confined to the Baltics. In the Caucasus the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh continued unabated, with Moscow’s mediation or threats of force settling nothing. Gorbachev’s institutional changes also alarmed the people of Georgia, who feared that they would strengthen the centre at the expense of the republics. In November 1988 there had been demonstrations in Tblisi, the capital of Georgia. The inefficiency of the assistance rushed to the victims of a huge earthquake in Armenia in December 1988 again reflected badly on the Kremlin’s powers in general and on Gorbachev in particular. Much worse followed. In April 1989 there was another peaceful demonstration in Tblisi. Gorbachev was out of the country. The Georgian communist leader appealed to the Kremlin for support and the hardliners led by Ligachev ordered troop reinforcements. Gorbachev returned, expecting a peaceful outcome. Instead the troops went into action, firing on the crowd and using gas to disperse them. The Tblisi ‘massacre’ left twenty dead and hundreds more injured. The brutality tarnished Gorbachev’s image on the eve of the first meeting of the Congress of People’s Deputies in May 1989. The elections, conducted over several weeks, had been chaotic. The party had done its best to influence the outcome, but a sizeable group of radicals was returned. Public pressure now counted for something, especially in the large cities. The attempt to exclude Andrei Sakharov, the most famous of the human-rights dissidents, backfired on the Academy of Sciences and he was elected. But the most spectacular victory was that of Boris Yeltsin in the Moscow constituency, where he defeated the party apparatchik by a landslide. With 5 million Moscow votes cast for him, Yeltsin could now claim some democratic credibility, in contrast to Gorbachev, who had never submitted himself to any popular election. The first session of the Congress of People’s Deputies began on 25 May 1989. The lack of respect shown for key leaders of the old regime and the reluctance of large numbers of deputies to conform to rules were a tribute to the atmosphere of freedom and the absence of fear that Gorbachev had done so much to bring about. Gorbachev himself had a tough time controlling the proceedings, which were televised in the spirit of glasnost. Remarkably Andrei Sakharov gave his support to the proposition that Gorbachev be elected president of the Supreme Soviet, the smaller working parliament that was to be chosen from among the deputies. He admired the man but had reservations about the pace of reform. The majority of the deputies were silent conformists, but active radicals and militant conservatives, plus some individual eccentrics, ensured a lively forum with many speeches on many subjects, and Gorbachev and his ministers heard many of their policies challenged. When it came to electing the Supreme Soviet, the majority voted in party conservatives, mainly nonentities. Yeltsin and other radicals were left out. The people of Moscow mounted a large demonstration against the exclusion of their hero. The democratic spirit had been truly awakened and could no longer be smothered by old-style KGB and police repression. Even the conservatives now understood this and amended the laws accordingly. Could the peoples of the Soviet Union be granted fewer political freedoms than their allies and neighbours in the people’s republics? Economic crisis at home was hastening Soviet disengagement from what had once been satellites, in Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Czechoslovakia and the German Democratic Republic. From the spring of 1989 to the end of the year communist rulers, no longer protected by the Red Army, were being overthrown one after the other by popular revolutionary movements. These assertions of independence could not fail to make an impact in the Soviet republics. Why should communism survive in the Soviet Union when it was being rejected by people everywhere else? Even China could not entirely isolate itself from this world revolutionary movement. In the Soviet Union improving economic conditions might have reconciled the people a little longer to the reform of communism that Gorbachev was striving to bring about. But material conditions were constantly getting worse. A massive strike by miners in the summer of 1989 was settled only by giving in to all the miners’ demands, though the promises made could not all be kept. Gorbachev believed there was only one answer: to push on with his political and institutional reforms. He thought he could counteract the increasing dangers of a breakdown by gathering more and more power to himself. He had no intention of becoming an autocrat, except in the sense of seeing democratic reforms through to their successful conclusion. At the same time he was afraid to introduce radical economic remedies which would raise prices and create millions of unemployed. The people’s anger might then sweep away perestroika and glasnost and his own humane programme. At the second session of the Congress of People’s Deputies in December 1989 democratic elections took another step forward with the abolition of seats reserved for the Communist Party and communist-dominated ‘social organisations’. During the spring session of 1990, the government of the Soviet Union was reshaped once more, giving even greater powers to Gorbachev. He was elected president of the Soviet Union on 15 March 1990. The president’s executive functions were supported by two councils, a presidential council of his personal advisers and ministers and a federative council of representatives from the fifteen republics; the two councils would often meet together. These new structures completely marginalised the old party centres of power, the Politburo (renamed Praesidium) and the Central Committee. Even the ‘leading role’ of the Communist Party, enshrined in Article 6 of the constitution, came under such heavy attack that it had to be abandoned, and the Soviet Union seemed on the threshold of permitting multi-party elections. Yet for Gorbachev the preservation of the Communist Party, as the one cohesive element binding the Union together, remained a crucial objective. If this could no longer be achieved by constitutional law, as he had hoped it could be, then a reformed party would have to win the approval of the people in a contest with others. Gorbachev remained by conviction a communist, albeit a new type of ‘humane communist’. But the tide of history was against him. The first of the real crisis years was 1990. Paradoxically the more constitutional power Gorbachev acquired, the weaker in reality he became. Under the immense strains that the great drama was imposing on him, Gorbachev was tiring; at times he seemed to lose heart and offered to resign. But there was no one among the conservative majority in the party ready to replace him, and the radicals like Yeltsin were anathema to that majority. The nationalist problems also kept mounting. Gorbachev turned to strong-arm tactics to regain control and to preserve the Union. In January a massacre of Armenians by Azeri in Baku led to a showdown, with Red Army units ‘retaking’ Baku on Gorbachev’s orders. The president then visited Lithuania, where he met general hostility. The democratising movement he had set in motion during the spring of 1990 now led to elections for new parliaments in each of the republics, elections which enormously strengthened the nationalists. The Popular Front in Lithuania swept the board and on 11 March 1990 the Lithuanian Parliament declared the country’s independence, appointing Vytantas Landsbergis president. The declaration was declared invalid in Moscow, and Soviet tanks and paratroopers appeared in the streets of Vilnius in a vain attempt to overawe the population. Gorbachev next instituted an economic blockade, then made conciliatory gestures. But Estonia and Latvia followed Lithuania’s lead during the course of the year. By the end of 1990 negotiations between the Baltic representatives and Gorbachev had reached stalemate. The Western powers hesitated to support the Baltic moves for independence because they still relied on Gorbachev in international affairs and wished to do nothing to weaken him. But on the economic side the West did little to strengthen him, having no confidence that the economic reforms were going far enough. The largest of the Soviet Union’s republics was the Russian Federation, which contained about half the Soviet Union’s population and threequarters of its territory. The elections in the cities had returned radical deputies, though the countryside was still traditional. Moscow’s new mayor was the radical Gavriil Popov, and St Petersburg’s (the rechristened Leningrad) mayor was another democrat, Anatoly Sobchak. The Federation’s new parliament appeared to be fairly evenly split between conservatives and radicals. Boris Yeltsin, the obvious leader of the radicals, now campaigned for the presidency of parliament, which would make him practically leader of the republic. He made his aim clear: to gain independence for the Russian Federation without leaving the Soviet Union. The powers to be delegated to the Union would become a matter for negotiation. Gorbachev supported a conservative candidate, but Yeltsin won the vote by a comfortable majority. He now emerged as a powerful national leader. There were deep policy differences between Yeltsin and Gorbachev, not least on the best way to handle the nationality conflicts. Yeltsin believed that the republics could be associated only in a voluntary union, preserving independence but handing some joint responsibilities to the Soviet Union. If any wished to leave the Soviet Union altogether, as the Baltic republics did, no obstacles should be placed in their way. He accordingly arranged for the Russian Federation to sign separate agreements with the Baltic republics. This went too far for Gorbachev, who saw a purely voluntary association as a recipe for disintegration and chaos. On the issue of democratisation, Yeltsin was totally disenchanted with the Communist Party and did not wish to see it enjoy any special position in the Soviet Union. For Gorbachev it remained the backbone of unity and the only possible administrative tool of reform. There was also the question of how to modernise the Soviet economy. Gorbachev hankered after some socialist halfwayhouse. Yeltsin saw no alternative but a rapid transformation to a market economy at whatever cost in terms of immediate hardship to the Russian people. The only hope for the Soviet Union in 1990 seemed to be for the old rivals Yeltsin and Gorbachev to work together, and both expressed their willingness to try. At the meeting of the Twenty-Eighth Congress of the Communist Party in July 1990, Gorbachev delivered an address outlining his vision of a truly free society founded on a respect for human rights. He went further than ever before in defining democratisation as involving free elections and a multi-party system. He defended perestroika and denied that it was responsible for the lamentable condition of the Soviet economy – yet he had little but words to offer as remedies. He was strong on freedom, on political and party reform, weak and cautious on how best to tackle the crisis in the economy. He was bitterly attacked by Ligachev and the majority of the conservatives. Yeltsin, with an eye, as always, for the dramatic opening, chose the Congress to announce his resignation from the Communist Party. The party was split and demoralised, and most of the Soviet peoples were losing confidence in Gorbachev and his reforms, which seemed only to be increasing the queues, the shortages and the exorbitant black-market profits. Corruption now flourished in low places too. People had got used to freedom and began taking it for granted. At this late hour Gorbachev’s prime minister Nikolai Ryzhkov produced a cautious proposal for economic reform which postponed any serious move to a market economy and to realistic, unsubsidised prices. But were things about to change? While Ryzhkov tinkered with the economy, Gorbachev in January 1990 turned to a young academic economist, Stanislav Shatalin, as an additional adviser. By the summer Gorbachev and Yeltsin were cooperating, and they set Shatalin to work at the head of a team of like-minded economists to produce a programme that would rapidly introduce a market economy. By the end of August the ‘500 Days’ plan was ready and Gorbachev and Yeltsin agreed to back it. As summer turned to autumn Gorbachev began to have second thoughts. He saw that all control was slipping from his hands, with the majority of the party in opposition, the republics daily issuing new independence claims and disregarding Kremlin directives. Conditions had become so bad that Gorbachev’s public credit was all but exhausted. If he now adopted the shock therapy of the Shatalin plan, which would entail huge price increases and considerable unemployment, he feared that the Soviet Union would slide into anarchy. So he withdrew his backing from Shatalin’s radical prescription. To save the crumbling edifice of the Soviet Union, he discussed with Yeltsin and other republican leaders a new treaty which would preserve the Union while making many concessions to the republics’ demands for sovereignty. He was trying to gain time. Significantly he also turned to his hitherto conservative opponents to bolster the Kremlin’s failing powers. In yet another change he abolished the Presidential Council, and brought in the KGB, army and police to a new Security Council. New hardliners suddenly became the president’s righthand men. Soon old Cold War rhetoric was heard once again. The fourth session of the Congress of People’s Deputies in December 1990 was memorable for one astounding event: Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze publicly announced his resignation in protest against Gorbachev’s reliance on reactionary party members. He warned against ‘the advance of dictatorship’. As the new year began, Gorbachev had few ideas left about how to lift the Soviet Union out of its crisis. When the military attempted to suppress the nationalists in Lithuania and Latvia and snuff out their independence movements, the people of Riga and Vilnius rallied to the defence of their new democratic parliaments and governments. The deaths of twenty civilians only strengthened popular defiance as the people erected barricades, and Gorbachev claimed that he had not ordered the bloodshed. His main efforts that spring and summer were to negotiate a new constitution with the republican leaders. Even as Georgia declared its independence in April 1991, Gorbachev’s extraordinary negotiating skills scored one final success. In May 1991 the fifteen republican leaders, brought together by the president, agreed to form a new union. Later, nine of those republics, including the Russian Federation, approved the ‘principles’ of such a treaty, which was to be solemnly signed on 20 August 1991. But the hardliners struck back. As the dramatic events unfolded in Moscow on Monday morning, 19 August, the whole world held its breath. The coup that should have been foretold caught Gorbachev completely by surprise. It was Sunday, 18 August. Gorbachev was spending the last two days of his vacation in his villa in the Crimea, working on the speech he was to deliver at the ceremony on 20 August marking the signature of the new Union Treaty. That afternoon he was visited by a group who represented, they said, a State Committee for the State of Emergency; they demanded that he should proclaim a state of emergency and hand over power to his vicepresident, Gennadi Yanayev. Gorbachev indignantly refused. He was then kept prisoner in his own villa and cut off from all outside contact, while the coup got under way in Moscow. Early the following morning, 19 August, Moscow awoke to the news that Gorbachev was ill and that an eight-member State Committee for the State of Emergency had taken over. Most shocking of all, those men were not members of a reactionary opposition but had been Gorbachev’s most recent ministers, leaders and aides, the conservatives he had chosen in 1989: Gennadi Yanayev, Boris Pugo (minister of the interior), Dimitri Yazov (minister of defence), Vladimir Kryuchkov (head of the KGB since 1988), Valentin Pavlov (prime minister) and three others. It was a total betrayal. Gorbachev was imprisoned and powerless for seventy-two hours; he prepared a videotape condemning the coup, while his wife Raisa became ill from the shock. All the action was in Moscow. The Committee proclaimed a state of emergency and rule by decree; demonstrations were banned; at midday tanks and troops appeared in the streets of Moscow and were placed around key buildings. The junta also issued a decree that the constitution of the Soviet Union took precedence over that of the republics; it was to be the end of any notions of sovereignty for the republics or of a new Union treaty. Boris Yeltsin just escaped arrest and rushed to the Russian parliament building, which was known as the White House because of its white marble frontage. But the coup leaders were inept and failed to act decisively and ruthlessly on that first day. They were out of their depth, and Yanayev, the titular head, was said to be drunk most of the time. Yeltsin took his life in his hands when he rushed to the White House. The most unforgettable image of the coup was presented by Yeltsin climbing on to a tank just outside the Russian parliament mid-morning on Monday the 19th. He uncompromisingly denounced the coup and called for a general strike and popular support. But the response was patchy. The miners of the Kuznetsk Basin beyond the Urals said they would strike, but only in St Petersburg did the mayor Anatoly Sobchak provide decisive support. The fate of the coup would be decided in Moscow. Yeltsin’s call for the people of Moscow to defend the Russian parliament building proved decisive. Before his appeal no more than 200 people had gathered in front of the White House. Millions of Muscovites simply went about their business, fatalistically accepting the coup. But Yeltsin’s courage proved infectious. By Monday night there were hundreds more. The hours passed, and it became evident that some elements in the army and KGB were not behind the coup. The expected attack on the White House did not materialise that night. By Tuesday night not thousands but tens of thousands had gathered to protect the White House, and barricades were thrown up. The young conscript tank crews were bewildered. It was clear that, even if ordered to do so, they could not be relied upon to fire on the people. Around one barricade there was a scuffle that claimed three victims, the only deaths in Moscow. Some tanks defected and joined the people in defence of the Russian parliament. Tuesday midnight passed without the expected assault on the White House materialising. Somewhat belatedly the West on Tuesday condemned the coup outright. On Wednesday it was all over. Kryuchkov and Yazov tried to save themselves by fleeing from Moscow to negotiate with Gorbachev in the Crimea; instead they were arrested there. All the principal plotters were soon in prison. Only Boris Pugo escaped – by committing suicide. On Thursday, early in the morning, Gorbachev returned to Moscow airport, to be met by Yeltsin and a large crowd of well-wishers. But Gorbachev was a defeated man. Yeltsin manoeuvred shrewdly, and made no attempt to replace Gorbachev illegally. Over the next three months he eroded the Soviet Union until there was no job left for its president. After his return Gorbachev had lost the initiative by lining himself up behind the totally discredited Communist Party. Yeltsin had already broken their power in the Russian Federation and he now finished the job, shutting down the party in Moscow altogether. Belatedly, on Saturday 24 August, Gorbachev announced his resignation as general secretary and recommended that the Central Committee dissolve itself, thus decapitating the party. It was finished. Hated party statues were toppled from their pedestals. But one relic survived: no one could bring themselves to remove Lenin from the mausoleum. Yeltsin went on to sidetrack Gorbachev, who was warning of the dangers facing the Soviet Union if cooperation between the republics could not be secured by a new Union treaty. Yeltsin went ahead on his own, asserting Russian independence of action, and in October 1991 proposed a separate and radical economic reform programme that was to lead to a free-market economy. The plan had been masterminded by the young economist Yegor Gaidar and his team. Yeltsin also began separate negotiations with the Ukraine and Belorussia to ensure economic cooperation between the republics. The formal preservation of the Soviet Union still had some advantages for Yeltsin’s Russian Federation as a framework for essential trade interchange, especially with the Ukraine. But when, on 1 December 1991, the Ukraine in a referendum overwhelmingly voted for independence the old Soviet Union ceased to have much purpose. A week later on 8 December Yeltsin and the leaders of the Ukraine came to an evidently hurried decision to make a complete break with the past and to create a new association, the Commonwealth of Independent States, around the Slavic core of the three republics (the third was Belorussia). They were joined by Kazakhstan, by the four other Asian republics and then by three more republics. As 1992 began, the eleven members of this new Commonwealth still had many problems to sort out, among them the control of nuclear missiles, the future division of military and naval units and what unified structures should remain, their economic relationships and unresolved territorial questions. The most critical issues concerned the Ukraine and Russia, whose presidents had to sort out the futures of the Crimea and of the Black Sea fleet, the transfer of nuclear weapons to Russia and trade between the two republics. The death of the Soviet Union solved a number of old problems, but it also raised many new ones. On Christmas Day 1991, Gorbachev resigned, having to the last attempted to preserve the Soviet Union. His enormous achievements had been rightly acknowledged with the Nobel Peace Prize. His belief in a humane socialism was sincere, and he knew that without legality in a state there could be no humanity. During his years of power, the Gulags were liquidated, political prisoners were set free and civil rights and freedoms were returned to the Soviet peoples. His refusal to protect the communist bosses in the former satellites or to use the Red Army to quell popular unrest brought freedom to East Germans, Czechs and Slovaks, Hungarians, Poles, Bulgarians and Romanians. With the freedom came new problems, in part the inheritance of decades of communist misrule. But the nightmare of a nuclear holocaust receded as the Cold War came to an end. All this was accomplished by one extraordinary man, himself the product of a communist upbringing and of a communist system, to which he remained loyal to the end. He attracted able men to support him in his policies and created a mass following in the Soviet Union. At first suspiciously but later with matching openness, the West responded. It was Gorbachev who did most to initiate the biggest change in global relationships since the Second World War. For this alone he will go down as one of the great leaders of the twentieth century, his a crucial role in shaping its history. We can also begin to understand the reasons for Gorbachev’s failures, for they too are embedded in his concept of ‘humane democratic socialism’. He chose the opposite course to the Chinese reformers of the 1980s. Gorbachev’s priority was the reform of the party, to open the party to democratic influences and competition, which would revive the Soviet economy as the burdens of war and bureaucracy were lifted from the shoulders of the Soviet peoples. The expanded, though still small, private sector of the economy, which had always existed even under Stalin, would be allowed to compete with the revived state sector to increase efficiency without threatening to overtake the socialist economy. But Gorbachev always saw that the most urgent need was for political reform, which he believed would lead to economic improvement. Six years from March 1985 were not such a long time to bring about a root-and-branch change in party and government after more than sixty years of communist autocracy, whose basic assumptions had never been challenged by Khrushchev or any of his successors. Gorbachev’s thinking was revolutionary and opened up the possibility of a better future for the Soviet Union. Neither he nor most of his contemporaries inside and outside the Soviet Union foresaw where these policies were leading, even while they could not fail to notice the increasing hardships placed on the Soviet peoples during the years of political transition. Gorbachev was blamed by Yeltsin and his supporters, as well as by some economists in the West, for not simultaneously pursuing radical economic market reforms as well. Significant Western credit was denied because of their absence. But Gorbachev feared they would have led to anarchy and chaos. Nowhere in the world have both drastic political and economic change been attempted successfully at one and the same time. During the 1980s Deng and the Chinese reformers pursued economic reform while maintaining communist political power largely intact. In both China and the former Soviet Union only half of the double transition, to a market economy and to democracy, has been attempted – a different half in each country. Gorbachev’s strength and weakness lay in his political instincts, the fertility of a mind that appeared to conjure up compromises out of apparently unbridgeable contradictions. He spoke of democracy, but it was a democracy that was meant to coexist with the role of the Communist Party and its enormous bureaucracy, newspapers, sanatoria, resorts and manifold privileges. He conceded that the republics could leave the Union if they wished, but sent in tanks and guns to intimidate the Baltic republics when they wanted independence without delay. The limited sovereignty he was prepared to grant was far less than the republics were going to take if they did not get their way. Unfulfilled promises lost him the support of the Soviet peoples as the economy spiralled into decline. Compromises here resulted in the worst of two worlds. As he himself put it, at the end ‘the old system fell apart even before the new system began to work’ – but to what ‘new system’ was he referring? No new economic structures were established as the old centralplanning apparatus disintegrated with the rise of nationalism in the republics. And yet Gorbachev’s precarious tightrope act might have lasted a good deal longer if the reactionary conservative leadership had not attempted to topple him in August 1991. Nobody seemed big enough to step into his shoes until Yeltsin emerged as the man of the hour, the saviour of Russia. The coup had so diminished the Communist Party’s stature and that of Gorbachev that the former was swept away and Gorbachev himself was brought to the point where he was the president of a Union that had ceased to exist. The Russian economy continued its catastrophic decline in 1992. Privatisations allowed powerful oligarchs to secure the nation’s valuable assets including oil and gas at a fraction of their worth. The Russian people, despite showing extraordinary patience and fortitude, were becoming ever more disillusioned with their rulers who were unable to deliver a basic standard of living. The beneficial results of Gaidar’s reforms failed to make themselves felt in ways the Russian people could see. Gradually the reforms requiring strict financial controls were relaxed. Roubles were printed to pay the wages of workers in inefficient state industries. Without the control of a Central Bank, the republics printed more roubles until the whole country, flooded with paper money, plunged into hyperinflation by the end of the year. At the heart of Russia’s crisis lay not only an economic but also a political problem. Who was in charge of what? Ministries and the Central Bank vied for control. Russia’s executive with Yeltsin at its head was subject to parliament, Russia’s Congress of People’s Deputies. The Congress was still packed with the communist deputies elected in the spring of 1990 (when it was still the Supreme Soviet) before the failed coup of August 1991. Yeltsin and the communist majority in the Congress who disapproved of his reforms were at loggerheads. Yeltsin showed some readiness to compromise by dropping Gaidar in December 1992 while assuring the international financial world that the path of reform would not be abandoned. The conflict between the opposition in the Soviet parliament and the president threatened to paralyse economic reform. On 21 September 1993 Yeltsin simply dismissed parliament and called for new elections in December. A defiant opposition condemned the decree, denounced it as unconstitutional and set up a rival government with Alexander Rutskoi as the new prime minister. Yeltsin reacted by ordering the army to surround the White House, but still attempted to leave the way open for a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Instead, the 100-odd hardcore deputies who remained deposed Yeltsin and declared Rutskoi president. Rutskoi and the parliamentary speaker Khasbulatov badly miscalculated in believing that they could swing the army and people behind them. They attempted a coup and sent out a call to supporters to seize Moscow’s television station. On 4 October Yeltsin also responded with force – ordering the tanks to fire on the White House. The spectacle was played out on the world’s television screens. It was all over in twenty-four hours and the deputies, Rutskoi and Khasbulatov surrendered. The cost was some 140 dead and many injured. But the struggle between parliament and the president was not over. The December elections proved disappointing for the reformers even though the new constitution proposed by Yeltsin, which strengthened the power of the president, was accepted in a national referendum. The big shock of the elections was the emergence of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the populist ultranationalistic leader of the anti-reform group misnamed the ‘Liberal Democratic Party’, which gained sixty-four seats. Yegor Gaidar’s Russia’s Choice, a reformist party, secured a disappointing seventy seats, the Communist Party forty-eight, the anti-reform Agrarian Party thirty-three, and the Women of Russia twenty-three. The balance of forces is against radical reform even though 129 Independents were also elected. Russia’s new democratic institutions are fragile; the workings of democracy are not fully understood in a factional conflict lacking any consensus; the economy with its constantly declining output is only being reformed piecemeal. And added to the difficulties of trying to maintain standards of living is the peripheral but lethal nationalities problem. Russia would also like to become a member of the European Union, but such a prospect lies years in the future. The Russian people have faced seemingly interminable years of reform and falling standards of living with astounding patience and fatalism. Serious conflicts that arose within the country had national and ethnic causes. However, solace is sought in the consumption of vodka. Medical services lack the resources to deal with endemic poor health aggravated by alcoholism and a new threat, tuberculosis. Russia’s course of reform has been erratic and uncertain. President Yeltsin’s own mercurial performance was an indication of uncertainties of his policies. Nevertheless, although Russia’s transition to market capitalism is far from complete it has irreversibly moved away from communism. Despite the fact that he concealed a near-fatal heart condition the Russians chose to stick with the devil they knew and reelected Yeltsin in June 1996. After surgery, the Russian president staged a remarkable recovery, and a new impetus to economic reform was signalled with the appointments of Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov as first deputy prime ministers. The task they faced in normalising the economy and the lives of the Russian people was daunting. Moreover, the young reformers faced opposition from the Duma, controlled by communists and nationalists; fortunately these opponents of reform have been held in check by the threat of losing their seats and privileges in the event of an election. Every year since 1992 it was hoped that Russia’s economic decline had bottomed out. By 1996 the official economy had shrunk to about half its 1989 level. Unsurprisingly the market economy failed to bring equal benefits to all the Russian people. The young and enterprising, a minority, were profiting from new opportunities. The super-rich derived their new wealth from privatisations riddled with corruption. Guns as well as bribery played an important role in this process and ‘protection’ was paid to Mafia-style bosses. A small group of bankers, who helped to finance Yeltsin’s re-election, did particularly well by promising loans in return for shares to cash-starved industries selected for privatisation. However, despite ‘protection’, bankers were at risk: over a period of just four years, after 1993, 118 were murdered. Life has been hard for the ordinary people. The bright lights of Moscow and St Petersburg do not reach the rest of the country and the privatisation of agricultural land has made virtually no progress. The black economy flourished while taxes remain unpaid and for months the government was unable to pay the army, health service employees or pensioners. Trade was conducted as much by barter as by cash. Although privatisation of industry has made great strides it is hampered by mismanagement. Some factories resorted to desperate stratagems; The Economist reported how one manufacturer of marine equipment, unable to pay its workforce for over a year, switched production to rubber dildos, marketed as ‘Adam’, only to find that they were unable to compete against more sophisticated battery-operated Western models available in Moscow. Market research is evidently still in its infancy in Russia. Surprisingly, the armed forces of 2 million have borne all these hardships and remained loyal. Badly led, trained and equipped, the young conscripts were unable to defeat the rebels of breakaway Chechnya: the region was crucial to Russia’s economy as it is crossed by the main oil pipeline from Baku. The unpopular war, begun in December 1994, was ended but not for long when General Lebed took negotiations into his own hands; it had led to more than 70,000 deaths and 240,000 casualties and had solved nothing; the question of independence was postponed. In June 1996 Yeltsin cleverly harnessed Lebed’s popularity to secure his own re-election, only to dismiss him a few months later from his senior position as national security adviser. The catalogue of what is wrong in Russia is interminable and tends to overwhelm the more positive growth economic indicators: a fluctuating Stock Exchange, the small positive growth of GDP in 1997 after eight years of continuous decline, and the taming of hyperinflation from 2,500 per cent in 1992 down to a more acceptable 15 per cent. Russia possesses huge natural resources, particularly gas, 40 per cent of the world’s reserves of oil, much coal and timber, and almost a third of the world’s nickel; its low costs and educated workforce should now encourage development. However, a country that has suffered communist rule for over seven decades cannot be transformed in a decade. Russia’s failure to achieve sustained economic recovery was evident in 1999. Corruption remained a serious obstacle. Russia came close to economic breakdown. Instability increased as Yeltsin changed his prime ministers while his health was failing – troubles enough even without renewed war in Chechnya. But the Stalinist days of isolation are over and a fundamental change of attitude has taken place: Russia’s leaders no longer fear an attack by their ‘capitalist’ enemies. Their country has now joined the global economy and lives at peace. Over the final years of the twentieth and early years of the twenty-first century the roller-coaster ride of Russia’s progress came to an end. The Russian economy had reached its nadir in 1998 with the rouble default. The income of the people took a sharp drop, greater in an instance than during the past five years. Inflation soared once more. The ‘oligarchs’, the old communist bosses who had obtained state industries and resources for a fraction of their true value, had shifted their loot abroad into safer currencies. Yeltsin’s court and family were enmeshed in corruption allegations. Worst of all, the ‘tiger’ who had stood on a Russian tank defying and defeating the coup against Gorbachev, seen on television occasionally receiving a foreign guest was wooden, immobile, quite obviously a sick man, so political instability was added to Russia’s economic woes. When in the summer of 1999 he appointed Vladimir Putin acting prime minister and nominated him as his successor, Russians and outsiders were astonished. No one had heard of him outside a narrow Kremlin circle. Was this another of Yeltsin’s whims, the fifth prime minister in seventeen months? Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned early in 2000 instead of waiting for the end of his term designating Putin as his preferred successor. Elections followed. Putin campaigned to restore Russia internationally, and to stamp out resistance in Chechnya. In March 2000 he was elected president. As it was to turn out, Yeltsin had made a shrewd choice. Putin had risen to power in positions behind the scenes. Still only forty-seven, he was young and vigorous. A law graduate of Leningrad University in 1975, he worked for fifteen years in the KGB espionage network. He gained civic administrative experience in the offices of mayors of St Petersburg and Moscow before being brought into the centre of government. From July 1998 to March 1999 he directed the State Security Service of the KGB as well as being secretary in the Kremlin of the Presidential Security Council which advised Yeltsin on the armed forces, police and the security services. He was completely loyal to Yeltsin and promised if elected president to safeguard Yeltsin and his family from corruption charges. A small athletic man with unflinching eyes rarely seen to smile, internationally he was an unknown quantity, his past career not auguring well for Russia’s constitutional progress. He began by renewing and stepping up the deeply unpopular war in Chechnya. The towns were in ruins, but complete pacification continued to elude the Russian military. He attempted unsuccessfully to counter increasing Western influence among former satellites of Eastern Europe and opposed their adhesion to NATO. His assertion of Russian power got him nowhere. In the autumn of his first year he was also wrong-footed at home. On the 21 October 2000 there was an explosion on the nuclear submarine, the Kursk, the pride of the fleet. The 118 crew members were trapped on the bottom of the icy Barents Sea. Until their oxygen ran out most remained alive. But all foreign rescue offers during the crucial early days were rejected. The damage was blamed on a probable collision with a US submarine. The true cause was the explosion of a torpedo. Putin remained on holiday. Popular anger mounted and Putin acted too late. The Kursk disaster was an indication of the perilous state of the Russian military, of a fleet left rotting in harbour, nuclear reactors in rusting hulks. Military budgets had been slashed, morale was low. Putin responded by tightening his grip. In April 2001 he moved against the critical free press and TV stations closing them down. The Duma was subservient. Democracy was ‘managed’. Putin acted against the oligarchs who had been pillars of Yeltsin’s support; some fled abroad rather than face trial at home. Internationally Putin became more conciliatory. After a show of force, more theatre than reality when an advance force of paratroopers occupied Pristina airport in Kosovo, Putin joined NATO’s occupation, engaged in negotiations for further nuclear disarmament with the US, was received by President Bush on his Texan ranch in November 2001 and made no further difficulties when the former Eastern European satellites and Poland voted to join the European Union. Western pressure to persuade Russia to end its military actions in Chechnya also weakened after ‘September 11’, the fighting dragged on seemingly without end. Putin was prepared to grant a measure of autonomy but not independence. After a hiccup over the Iraq war, Russian relations with the West became watchfully cordial. Putin projected leadership and strength. When Chechnyan fundamentalists took control of a Moscow theatre and held the audience hostage, Putin’s message was that he was working night and day in the Kremlin to save the hostages. A mishandled rescue using gas to stun the Chechnyans killed more than a hundred of their hostages as well as the Chechnyans. But Putin was seen to have acted decisively, he had learnt the lesson of the Kursk. On the economic front, the Russian Federation made a remarkable recovery. The main reason for this was the rise in the price of crude oil which had already begun during the last year of Yeltsin’s presidency when gloom was at its height. Russia in the new century was at last moving toward sustainable development. Business confidence was growing, an ambitious reform agenda was showing results, above all there was political stability. The economy grew strongly and inflation fell to manageable figures. There was a long way to go. Health provision could not cope with the spread of HIV, TB and alcoholism. There is still serious corruption and there are weaknesses in corporate legislation, though foreign investment returned. Forty million Russians still live in poverty. The economy remains too dependent on the price of oil and the export of primary products. Reform of the military lags behind; nor is the broadening of democracy a prime aim. The Russian people yearn more for a better standard of living, a better quality of life, ahead of a more accountable democratic government. Authority is less feared than anarchy. Russia’s future in the new millennium began to look much brighter than during the closing years of the last. The world learned to appreciate the new strongman, who in 2003 officially became a guest of the queen in Buckingham Palace. The royal–presidential courtesies symbolically buried the barbarities of the Soviet era. In March 2004 Putin won the elections with overwhelming support for a second term. Since then he has increased presidential powers at the expense of moving towards a Western-style democracy in the belief that it is the only way to overcome the immense problems Russia faces, not least in the conflict in Chechnya.

 

 

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