Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Yeltsin's mixed legacy

Winston Churchill rallied the British people to devote their "blood, toil, tears, and sweat" to the cause of defeating Nazi Germany, but his party was crushed at the polls just months after V-E Day. Lech Walesa captured the hearts and minds of Poland as his Solidarity movement brought the Soviet-backed government to its knees, but he got kicked to the curb in the election six years later.

The political career of Boris Yeltsin, who died Monday in Moscow, followed a similar path. Like them, the former Russian president excelled in crisis but struggled to adapt to more tranquil times.

Yeltsin became an international icon while the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, particularly when he took to a tank while rebuffing a coup attempt by hardline Soviet Communists in 1991. He also instituted a number of seemingly sincere efforts to transform Russia into a democratic nation with a free-market economy and oversaw the country's first steps toward becoming a free society after centuries of repressive rule.

But after the dust settled, Yeltsin's difficulties began in earnest. Within two years after his famous speech atop the tank, he had turned the tanks on the Russian parliament to consolidate his power. He also launched two bloody wars in Chechnya, the latter of which is still ongoing and has become very unpopular, and did little to combat the rampant corruption that still has hold of many facets of Russian life. Yeltsin resigned apologetically in 1999 and handed the reins to his anointed successor, Vladimir Putin, whose track record could be described as "troubling" if you're feeling generous and as many other things if you aren't.

We shouldn't forget Yeltsin's role as a pioneer in Russia's move toward democracy, but neither should we gloss over his many woes (or his proclivity for outlandish, drunken public antics). For a moment in time, Yeltsin was in the right place at the right time to rally his people to change. But when that moment passed, he became yet another clear example of the idea that the skill set for good revolutionaries rarely overlaps with the skill set for good peacetime leaders.

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