Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Boris was good enough 

I recall sitting in a cabin up north with Mrs. S one morning in August, 1991, and reading in the news of the tanks in the streets of Moscow and the guy who stood on top of them. Shortly after then, the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia's new leader was Boris Yeltsin.

The blogosphere is full of encomiums to Yeltsin, and I don't have a particular personal story to share about him. I have met several economists who worked with him but never the man himself. We know that when he said in October 1991...
We have defended political freedom. Now we have to give economic [freedom], to remove all the barriers to the freedom of enterprises and entrepreneurship, to give the people possibilities to work and receive as much as they earn, after having thrown off bureaucratic pressures.
...that he never really meant it, or at least he didn't know how to make it happen. As Leon Aron noted several years ago, from the moment Russia entered its own life out of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin the populist and Yeltsin the reformer were constant adversaries.

While in Ukraine in 1996 I watched Yeltsin's re-election; given up for dead by most observers early in the year, he rallied back from two heart attacks and a moribund political party by being the populist again, by claiming his own cabinet had not provided for social protections, handing out huge unsustainable increases in pensions, playing to nativist fears with Chechnya, etc. (I argue with people still that the Russian bond defaults in August 1998 were predictable consequences of Yeltsin's electoral largesse, and the West's loans to him the worst part of our relations with post-Soviet Russia to that time.) Who can forget the man who danced his way back into a race he was sure to lose? The populist was needed at that time in order to pull out the victory. Alas, the energy expended left Yeltsin the reformer too feeble to act if he had wanted to ... and we'll never know if it was because of that or his desire to feather his own bed on the way to retirement.

I've never been a fan of populists, and Yeltsin was at his peak as a populist and that's how most will remember him. However, the reforms he tried and failed to create, particularly in the Gaidar period, were a legacy that will endure well past the tapes of the dancing candidate. A flawed man who could not reform his own country, but good enough to provide a map other countries followed to successful transition.