February 3, 2015 by AK
When Boris Yeltsin became the country’s first democratically elected president in 1991 he surrounded himself with intellectuals — political and social scientists, market economists and journalists. But the failure to implement his progressive agenda and his near-defeat in the 1996 election brought him up short. Unbridled corruption and mounting economic, political and social instability forced Mr. Yeltsin to recognize that he needed people who — he hoped — would be able to put things right.
I’m not sure about the “intellectuals” part but overall, that’s in line with my thinking on Yeltsin. He wanted reform but never had a majority in the Duma. He had an enormous personal charisma and was hardly a misanthropic little despot, but negotiating with his adversaries never got him anywhere. He must have stirred strong feelings.
The 1995-99 Duma was particularly hostile to Yeltsin’s “liberals.” Communists were the largest party in the Duma with 35% of seats, and in 1995 as now, most Russian Communists were USSR restorationists with a pseudo-patriotic bent and a weakness for crazy statist teachings. Overall, Yeltsin’s opponents had at least 44% seats while all the pro-reform parties, some of which were harshly critical of Yeltsin, like Yabloko, only held 27%. The venal, weather-vane Liberal Democrats had 12% of the mandates, and various “independents” held 17%. To get that Duma to approve a bill, Yeltsin’s team had to make all the “liberals” toe the line, bribe the LibDems and sway two-thirds of the “independents.” Tough.
It all changed in December 1999, when two pro-government blocks scrambled a majority in the new Duma, sidelining the Communists. Yeltsin was still in office. By the election day, Putin had been PM for four months. Sergei Shoigu, now Putin’s defense minister, was a relatively popular commander of the emergency rescue corps and was no. 1 on the list of the principal pro-Kremlin block. Yeltsin resigned on the New Year’s eve knowing that the parliament would be under his successor’s control.
In the next five years, Yeltsin’s delayed bills finally made it through the Duma, steered by PM Mikhail Kasyanov and finance minister Alexey Kudrin. That’s when Putin got the reputation with Russia’s “liberals” as the man who can get the right things done through a democratic parliamentary procedure.
He has perfected that skill: yes, the right things, for him.