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THE BOLSHEVIK WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD : Boris Yeltsin Staved Off the Coup and Toppled the Communists. But Is He a True Democrat or a New Kind of Demagogue?

October 06, 1991|JOHN MORRISON | John Morrison, currently an editor for Reuters in London, covered the Soviet Union between 1978 and 1983 and was a fellow of the Russian Research Center at Harvard this year. This article is adapted from his book, "Boris Yeltsin: From Bolshevik to Democrat," published this month by Dutton.

Yeltsin's own flaws--impulsiveness and a prickly sensitivity to real or imagined insults--are well advertised. He has a Reaganesque dislike for detail (he supposedly didn't read last year's hotly debated "500-day" economic plan before endorsing it) and a rough, undiplomatic manner. But he has shown an ability to learn from his mistakes and take advice. His strengths, clearly displayed during his resistance to the coup, include courage and decisiveness.

Those who focus narrowly on personal qualities may argue that an outsized ego and an autocratic personality would seem to disqualify him as a genuine democrat. Those who look exclusively at his personal beliefs, as expressed in his public speeches, will put him squarely in the democrats' camp. And if a democratic politician is one who is prepared to submit to the verdict of the voters, then Yeltsin passes easily, even if he does not act like a Western politician. Finally, for democracy to take root, there has to be not only the election of a legitimate leader but the growth of a new society and democratic movements.

Like Lech Walesa in Poland, Yeltsin has managed to form a coalition to bridge the traditional gulf between the workers and the intelligentsia. But just as the transition from opposition to power divided Walesa's Solidarity movement, Yeltsin may find it impossible to keep both groups on his side for long. Tough choices will have to be made among the varying interests of industrial workers, emergent businessmen, private farmers, foreign investors.

Russia's deeper challenge may be the reconstruction not of society but of the state. Amid the disintegration of the old Soviet Union, Yeltsin has to find a working formula for a new kind of Russian government. Borders, citizenship, sovereignty, minority rights and future defense arrangements--the most difficult single issue--all have to be negotiated amid economic chaos. Even shorn of the other 14 Soviet republics, Russia may still be too much of an empire, too large and too diverse to be a democratically run nation-state.

More than 20 million Russians live outside the borders of the Russian republic, and, for the first time in centuries, they risk being no longer protected by the mother-state. If angry Russian minorities demand self-determination and union with Russia, the result could be a reawakening of the ugly side of Russian nationalism, which Yeltsin has so far held in check.

Handling the "Russian question" with the other republics will require the kind of finesse that will test Yeltsin to the limit. This is a sensitive and potentially explosive issue, and his actions soon after the coup show that he is not always sure-footed in dealing with the other republics.

It hardly suited Russian interests that the most conservative Communist-ruled republics, such as Byelorussia and Azerbaijan, which had never shown any interest before in breaking away, were now in a hurry to proclaim independence in order to insulate themselves from the new anti-Communist wind blowing from Moscow. And unless the Ukraine and Russia could find some form of agreement, even a loose confederation would be hard to achieve.

Yeltsin's first reaction was a statement issued by his spokesman warning that Russia reserved the right to renegotiate borders with any other republic that seceded. The statement was aimed principally at the Ukraine, with 11 million Russians inside its borders, mostly in the Crimea and the industrialized Donbass region, and at Kazakhstan, with 6 million Russians making up two-fifths of its population.

At a different time, as a negotiating ploy to help secure guarantees for Russian minorities, the statement might have served a useful purpose; in the highly charged post-coup atmosphere, its immediate effect was disastrous. In Kiev, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, under pressure from nationalist critics for his hesitation in condemning the coup, seized on Yeltsin's statement to warn about the danger of an emerging Russian "czarist empire." President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan joined the outcry, warning that a demand to renegotiate borders could provoke a war. Yeltsin dispatched his vice president, Alexander Rutskoy, and Leningrad Mayor Anatoly A. Sobchak to Kiev to mend fences with the Ukrainians, and later Yeltsin had talks with Nazarbayev. Repairing some of the damage, Yeltsin also promised TV viewers that "imperial attitudes are a thing of the past."

Speaking to the Congress of People's Deputies in September, he declared that Russia would protect the interest of Russians beyond its borders but added: "The Russian state, having chosen democracy and freedom, will never be an empire, nor an elder or younger brother. It will be an equal among equals."

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