RUSSIAN TO JUDGEMENT: Russia After the Soviet Union

Saturday, April 15, 2000

It's been nearly a decade since Boris Yeltsin brought seventy years of Soviet rule to an end in 1991. Unfortunately, an era that began with high hopes for the new Russia has become a nightmare for the Russian people. One indicator of the troubles in Russia: life expectancy is now lower than during the Soviet era. What went wrong in Russia under Yeltsin? What does the future hold now that Russia has a new leader? Finally, what direction should U.S. relations with Russia take in the next decade?

Recorded on Saturday, April 15, 2000

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I am Peter Robinson. Our show today, Russia. It has been nearly a decade since Boris Yeltsin climbed atop a tank outside the Russian Parliament to defy a communist coup attempt. Yeltsin's actions that day and shortly thereafter led to the formal end of the Soviet Union on Christmas day, 1991. All the world hoped that after 70 years of Soviet rule Russia would be able to make a quick transition to democracy and free markets. Yet, for the Russian people, an era that began with high hopes soon turned into a winter of discontent.

With us today to discuss Russia, three guests. Condoleezza Rice is a fellow at The Hoover Institution and a foreign policy advisor to presidential candidate George W. Bush. David Holloway is a Professor of Political Science and History at Stanford University and Gail Lapidus is a senior fellow at The Institute for International Studies. Our guests assess the legacy of Boris Yeltsin himself, consider the prospect for his successor as President of Russia and the outlook for Russia's war on Chechnya. Is spring finally coming to Mother Russia or just more winter?

Boris Good Enough?

Boris Yeltsin surprised the world by resigning, suddenly, unexpectedly on New Year's Eve, December 31, 1999. The Economist writes that Yeltsin's, I quote now, "...greatest contribution was not as a builder but as a destroyer of the communist edifice. Gail, is that Yeltsin's legacy that he took down communism?

Gail Lapidus: And in taking down communism also created opportunities to move forward in completely new directions. So it was not totally destructive, he also gave an impetus to certain new developments.

Peter Robinson: Did he follow the impetus as much as you would have liked?

Gail Lapidus: I think no one can, no one would feel that Yeltsin did as much as he had hoped and as much as we would have hoped. But he certainly started a process moving forward, made it happen, even if his gifts were not institution building.

Condoleezza Rice: I'd like to, to sound just a little bit of a counternote. I think that Boris Yeltsin quite clearly was an important figure, a critical figure. He was always better at standing on a tank and destroying than he was at building, so I...

Peter Robinson: Describe what you are referring to.

Condoleezza Rice: When...when he stood on a tank in 1991 and essentially challenged Russia to stand up to the coup, he really did commit one of the most important acts in modern Russian history. So I think for that, we have to thank him. But this was a man who was quite mercurial. Indeed, his very last act was surprising because he was a mercurial figure. He was someone who was constantly changing and I think that he did want to leave a legacy but he had no idea of how to move this country forward. He did some good things, there is no doubt about that. But Russia has not developed the institutions of democracy because Boris Yeltsin relied so much on personal power and personal authority. He ruled by dictat. That is not a very democratic [unintelligible].

Peter Robinson: Well here is, in assessing Boris Yeltsin, here is, to me, the interesting question. He came into power after seventy years of communism and centuries of a strong central, autocratic state. He had to oversee a transition from dictatorship to democracy. From a planned economy to a free market. And my question is, what is reasonable to expect of anyone in that position? How could he have built institutions better?

Condoleezza Rice: Let me contrast him with another great figure, Nelson Mandela.

Peter Robinson: Alright.

Condoleezza Rice: Who, if anything oversaw a transition that was of equal difficulty when one thinks of where South Africa was 12 or 15 years ago and what Mandela understood was the need to put into institutions some of his own personal authority. so that those institutions could survive him. Boris Yeltsin, for all the good that he did, did not build, not because he didn't want to build but because he didn't know how to do it. He really did continue to rule by personal authority and I don't think that has done Russia any good.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So you are Yeltsin now, David, you face a communist controlled Duma, the old communist party, not quite the communist party as it used to be, but they call themselves communists. They are against you. You are the president of this new entity, what do you do to establish property rights and the rule of law?

David Holloway: I think the first thing to do would be to establish new political institutions and adopt a new constitution and this he did not do in the fall of 1991. And to have new elections...

Peter Robinson: They have adopted a constitution since.

David Holloway: Since then be he had...

Peter Robinson: But that was the crucial moment, is what you are saying?

David Holloway: That was the crucial moment.

Peter Robinson: I see.

David Holloway: Because his authority was really unchallenged. The coup had collapsed, he was taking over, there was great optimism about the future and I think if he had... I think this echoes what Conde was saying. He and the people around him neglected political institutions in favor of personal power. Moreover they decided to go with economic reform first. But I think the political authority was really the important thing to establish. And I think it was a neglect of politics was one of the major failings because that led him into the crisis with the Duma and led to his shelling the Duma in 1993, which really was, you know, not one of his finer moments, we would say.

Peter Robinson: When you shell the legislature?

David Holloway: Yes, I think there is something...

Peter Robinson: Why didn't Yeltsin repudiate Russia's communist past?

Airing the Dirty Lenin.

Boris Yeltsin was President for how many years altogether? Seven-and-a-half, something like that?

Voices: Seven-and-a-half, yes.

Peter Robinson: Seven and a half years, almost eight years. Should he have removed Lenin's body from Red Square?

Condoleezza Rice: No, I actually never thought that this was an important issue.

Peter Robinson: It doesn't matter? Or?

Condoleezza Rice: No.

Peter Robinson: It just doesn't matter?

Condoleezza Rice: I just don't think it mattered. I do think that they were slow in removing some of the other symbols. I noticed it for a long time, for instance. One of the real peculiarities was that the Russian army continued to wear the uniform and the epaulet of the...

Peter Robinson: The Soviets?

Condoleezza Rice: The Soviet Armed Forces. Kind of a strange thing. But when I asked a Russian friend about this once, he said well, it is a matter of money.

Peter Robinson: They can't afford to...

Condoleezza Rice: They can't afford to change the uniform.

Peter Robinson: But you don't think symbols like that are important?

Condoleezza Rice: Lenin has a place in Russian history and I think that, in fact, Yeltsin did not want to fight that battle. This was a transition and I think that Yeltsin was trying to balance. and here I don't fault him, trying to balance elements of the old and elements of the new. The society was going through a lot of disruption, I think he did not want to give the communists a cause around which to rally.

Peter Robinson: I see.

Condoleezza Rice: And Lenin's body might have been a cause around which to rally.

Peter Robinson: I am just trying to dig out... You are making, actually, a utilitarian point then. It would have been a good idea, other things being equal...

Condoleezza Rice: Yes. But it was important.

Peter Robinson: ...but he would have brought down too much trouble upon his head.

Condoleezza Rice: It was important.

Peter Robinson: At a delicate moment. Would you agree with that?

David Holloway: Yes I would and I think it's, it is in a sense...reflects that fact that you still have different, and certainly in the early '90s, you had very different political forces inside Russia itself. You had, you know, great support for the Communist Party. You had people, you know, strongly nationalist and not communist and people wanting reform. And so he had to maneuver. There wasn't a clear consensus about what the new society should look like and to, to go to removing Lenin's tomb would be to inflame the political situation without, necessarily, achieving anything else.

Peter Robinson: Gail, do you believe, that if the man was too weak to remove Lenin's body from Red Square, he was at the same time strong enough to enact a new constitution, establish political parties and build all sorts of political institutions that Conde and David have suggested he ought to have done? I am just wondering if we are being a little too hard on Boris?

Gail Lapidus: Well I would emphasize, rather than the symbols of the connection to the Soviet era, the ways in which Yeltsin distanced himself from the Soviet era and one of, a key transition that we have not yet discussed, was the transition away from the old Soviet empire to a situation in which you now have 15 independent states of which Russia is only one.

Peter Robinson: He let Ukraine go.

Gail Lapidus: He let fourteen republics go. Yeltsin, in fact, was the author of the agreement that provided the basis for the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the creation of a voluntary commonwealth which is only a fairly loose relationship among the other republics.

And the fact that Yeltsin presided over, of course, along with Gorbachev, because both of them played a key role in this. But, in effect, presided over the peaceful dissolution of the world's last empire is a remarkable achievement. And if we, all we need to do is to look at what has happened in Yugoslavia and to look at the different role that a Milosovich has played compared to the role that Yeltsin has played...

Peter Robinson: Right.

Gail Lapidus: dealing with that. It is an extraordinary achievement here.

Peter Robinson: So we are dealing here...we are dealing here with a very large historical figure. One where...

Let's take a look at Russia's new leader.

Putin on the Ritz.

Vladimir Putin, 46 years old. Very young by comparison with Yeltsin and certainly by comparison with that long line of geriatric soviet leaders we saw in the 70s and most of the 80s. Here is what we know about him. And it turns out to be so little that I can say it is a few sentences on a TV show.

He spend 15 years as a spy in the KGB. He retired with the rank of Colonel. Pretty good rank, he must have been a good spy. After the break-up of the Soviet Union. He went into politics. He rose extremely fast, gets called down to the Kremlin, ends up heading the successor agency to the KGB, called the FSB. And then he becomes Boris Yeltsin's Prime Minister. This guy is really moving.

Now, it attracts my notice that his formative experience was in the KGB. Is Mr. Putin a good guy or a bad guy? Gail?

Gail Lapidus: It is very reminiscent of Andropov's career in an earlier period of Soviet history. And it is a very mixed picture. On the one hand...

Peter Robinson: Andropov is a bad guy, right?

Gail Lapidus: Andropov is a mixed guy. Because it is not very easy to label these people because on the one hand the KGB and its successor, the FSB has tended, especially in the Soviet period, to recruit and to give a set of experiences to people. It tended to recruit among the brightest and the most promising of [cross-talk, unintelligible].

Peter Robinson: So this guy would score high on SAT scores, probably.

Gail Lapidus: And to expose them to the outside world and a range of experiences that gave them a perspective, in Putin's case, on Europe, on Central Europe...

Peter Robinson: Join the KGB and see the world.

Gail Lapidus: ...that was quite unique. And so they, almost more than others, were very profoundly aware of the weaknesses of the systems that they served and tended to want to bring about changes.

Peter Robinson: When you heard that Vladimir Putin was appointed Prime Minister and then had become Acting President suddenly, was your first reaction "oh, no" or "hmm, maybe"?

Gail Lapidus: Great challenges lie ahead.

Peter Robinson: Great challenges lie ahead. Conde, do you like this guy?

Condoleezza Rice: No, I don't. But my...but my...but it is not my job to like him. is hard to understand him, but I will say this. You will not, I think, see the incoherent rather pathetic figure in the Kremlin any longer. He is a man, clearly, of energy and purpose. The question for us is, is that energy and purpose going to be put to the good or to the bad and that is what we don't know.

We don't know whether that energy and purpose will turn Russia more authoritarian. Clearly he has some links to and, I think, some...owes some debt to the military for his own rise. That troubles me a little bit. But yet, as Gail said, he had a mentor, Anatoly [Sujchak] who was a good guy.

Peter Robinson: What are the three or four actions that he will have to take over the next six months that will help you decide whether this is someone we ought to be encouraged about or not?

Condoleezza Rice: Tax reform will be number one. Right now Russians pay, can pay as much as 120% of their income in taxes. And...

Peter Robinson: Do people pay taxes in Russia?

Condoleezza Rice: No because you wouldn't pay 120% of your income in taxes, either. That is exactly the point. That is why why they can't collect taxes. So tax reform. Rule of law concerning property rights would be number two.

Peter Robinson: How does he the Judiciary independent in Russia?

Condoleezza Rice: He has a much stronger Parliament now in terms of reform. The center right, if you will, is in a stronger position in this new Duma and so I think he can get some of these things through. And number three I want to see what he is going to do in Chechnya because the most troubling thing about Vladimir Putin is that he came to power as a result of a kind of war fever about Chechnya.

He would not be where he is today, had he not given the impression that Russia, as he said, the Russian identity or the Russian idea is linked with being able to hold this great country together and he said some pretty awful things about those dark-skinned Chechens. So I think, from our point of view, what he does in Chechnya will be number three.

Peter Robinson: Why exactly is Chechnya so important to Russia?

War and Peace…and War and…

From 1994 to 1996, Yeltsin conducts the war against Chechnya, effectively the Russians lose. They suffer extremely heavy casualties and withdraw. Now we have Putin conducting another war against Chechnya. May I ask, what is Chechnya, where is it, why are they fighting the Russians? Why to the Russians feel compelled to fight back?

David Holloway: Chechnya is a republic within the Russian Federation. In the south of the Federation on the Caucasus, on the border with Georgia. 1991 when the Soviet Union was breaking up, the Chechens wanted to establish an independent republic there. In fact there was a move to send Russian troops in to stop that but, in fact, that was not done and Chechnya enjoyed a great degree of de facto autonomy in the early '90s.

Peter Robinson: You said it borders Georgia. Georgia got away scott free. Georgia is not an independent country. Why didn't Chechnya? Why do the Russians care more about Chechnya?

David Holloway: The way the Soviet Union broke up is that the old union republics under the Soviet constitution had the right to secede from the union, they all became independent and other entities within the state were not given independence.

Gail Lapidus: There is a long history of this fight. The Czar, it took the Czar's fifty years to subdue the Chechens. These are very tough mountain people who fight hard and under the most repressive times in the Soviet Union, when there was no possibility of any independence, they were...they were kept in check. But I think the Russians are fighting something of a losing battle here if they really think they are going to subdue them by force.

David Holloway: The United States and the European Union, virtually everybody outside Russia is calling for some sort of political settlement. What sort of political settlement do we envision?

David Holloway: Well a political settlement could be to grant them maximum degree of autonomy. Uh maybe a settlement would be to allow them to have independence but from the Russian point of view and this comes back to Mr. Putin, I think there is a feeling in a large part of the political elite that the great failure of Russia in the 1990s is the state became very weak. So there is a kind of political current in Russia that says what we need is a strong state. Not necessarily authoritarian but the state needs to assert its authority and if we don't do it in Chechnya then, you know, Russia could disintegrate. That is the kind of reasoning that goes behind at least some part of this war.

Peter Robinson: There is some validity to that, no?

Condoleezza Rice: I think that some of this is about resolving or assuaging a sense of national humiliation about what happened in '94 to '96. The military has been more assertive about this than... I study the Russian military. And in the years that I have studied both the Soviet and Russian military, I have never seen statements from the military that are more assertive. Saying that they were not...

Peter Robinson: As now?

Condoleezza Rice: As now. If they are not permitted to go to Grozny, they would consider that treason. This is really about assuaging the loss of that war in '94 to '96, establishing again Russian authority. It is a kind...Chechnya has become a kind of metaphor, if you will, for the weakness of the Russian state and in that sense I sometimes worry that they will not be happy until they can parade the heads of the Chechen warlords through Red Square.

Gail Lapidus: Conde, isn't it also a larger sense of humiliation? There was Afghan...

Condoleezza Rice: Yes.

Gail Lapidus: I mean if you look back, there was Afghanistan. Then there was the humiliating withdrawal from Central and Eastern Europe and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Germany. So Chechnya has become the metaphor but the causes, the sources of that humiliation are much deeper.

Condoleezza Rice: You are absolutely right, Gail.

And that's what sets the domino. It started with Afghanistan. It continues to roll back. Where will it stop? When will Russia assert itself? That is the conversation and the sad thing is that it is really across the political spectrum. There are very few voices that are willing to speak out at this point and give support.

Gail Lapidus: I am assessing it is also that it is a self-inflicted humiliation and injury in the sense that Afghanistan to start with was unnecessary and reflected a terrible misjudgment of the costs and the consequences of using military force in that way.

Peter Robinson: Is there nowhere for... Afghanistan was a Soviet era mistake. So why hasn't Russia been able to leave its communist past behind?

Nopes From the Underground.

If we look at Germany after the Second World War, and I grant, of course that it was an occupied power. But if you were a Nazi of any rank at all, the chances that you would hold office is simply illegal. You couldn't and you wouldn't. The leader was Konrad Adenouer who was a fierce anti-Nazi throughout the Hitler regime.

In Poland we get Lech Walesa as the first elected President after the breakup of the Warsaw Pact. He obviously was an anti-Soviet. In the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel. We see these figures emerging whose formative experience was struggling against the Nazi regime in Germany and the Soviet, the Communist puppets who had been imposed by the Soviets in Poland, in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Why are there no such figures emerging in Russia? Why is there no repudiation...

Condoleezza Rice: Seventy years. No... Adolf Hitler's regime was not seventy years. The penetration of the Communist Party into this society is really, I think unparalleled in modern history. And now you do have apparachiks, some of them younger, some of them having been convinced of reform but nonetheless, people who made their lives and were coming...

[Cross-talk, unintelligible]

Peter Robinson: A thorough going repudiation of the communist past would make it easier to get out from this, under this feeling of humiliation.

[Cross-talk, unintelligible]

Peter Robinson: You would have nobody left.

Gail Lapidus: It is also the problem that Russia did not exist as an entity independent of the Soviet Union, just as it had not existed as an entity independent of the Russian Empire. And so for Russia, unlike all the other states, the fourteen other former Soviet states and the countries of Eastern Europe, all of whom, in fact, could turn against that Soviet Empire. Moscow is the capital of both Russia and of the Soviet system and for Russians, what is Russian and what is Soviet are very much confused with each other.

Peter Robinson: David.

David Holloway: The other thing is that the transition in Russia and the former Soviet Union is very different in Eastern Europe because there you did have strong dissidents and opposition movements, so Walesa came out of the solidarity movement, there was a whole group of people who, for a long time, had refused to...had either opposed the state or had refused to cooperate with it.

Peter Robinson: But there was never any such broad scale dissident movement in Russia?

David Holloway: No, I mean...

Peter Robinson: The Soviets never allowed it.

David Holloway: It was, it was crushed and there were a few individuals, like Sakharov is probably the closest one to compare with Havel or Walesa. But, of course, he died in 1989 and...but there wasn't a whole cadre of people like that.

Condoleezza Rice: And Cherosky went to Israel.

David Holloway: Yes, went to Israel.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

David Holloway: So basically you have to draw on people who worked under the Soviet system and many of them did not like it and turned against it. One shouldn't say that people couldn't change their views. Many people...

Peter Robinson: What should the next American President do about Russia?

Duma’d From the Start.

Conde, you are advising a presidential candidate, George W. Bush. What would you tell him, what do you tell him to do differently toward Russia from what President Clinton and his administration do towards Russia?

Condoleezza Rice: The first thing is to treat Russia as a great, the great power that it is and with respect, therefore. And to understand that we have a full agenda with the Russians concerning a range of security issues. We have spent a long time aimed at each other in a nuclear standoff. That is really not the nuclear problem today. The nuclear problem today is a nuclear weapon from Iraq or from North Korea.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Condoleezza Rice: And we and the Russians, I think, have an interest in working toward a safer nuclear environment together. I would get at that agenda first. The Energy Department says that we may be off by as much as 30% in counting Russian nuclear warheads. That concerns me.

So we have a big agenda. Let's stop...

Peter Robinson: Are they hiding them or they can't count them, themselves?

Condoleezza Rice: They can't count them either. Their accounting system isn't very good. That agenda with the Russians is the one on which we need to be engaged. It is going to take a generation, for many of the reasons we have been talking about, for the Russians, I think, to fully blossom into a market economy and a democracy.

We are not bystanders but we can't do that for them and I think we have been far too engaged in their domestic politics. Far too engaged with Boris Yeltsin, the person.

Gail Lapidus: We are now are starting with, in effect with a clean slate at the level of leadership in terms of Putin. There is very little prior history behind that relationship and so I think, necessarily he is going to be judged more by his deeds and by the [unintelligible]?

Peter Robinson: What do you tell a candidate to do? What does Bill Bradley do if he is elected?

Gail Lapidus: In addition to the enormous focus on Russia, not to forget about the states in these surrounding areas because to the extent that we can [assent] political instability...

Peter Robinson: Ukraine. Georgia.

Gail Lapidus: the other... Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic states, the states that surround Russia today, to the extent that there is weakness, instability, economic crisis, failed political institutions in the surrounding states, it will be a constant invitation to hard line Russian elites to meddle in the regions beyond their borders and that will divert their energy and attention away from the fundamental challenges. So these structures [cross-talk, unintelligible]...

Peter Robinson: So, Senator Bradley, whatever is going on in Russia...

Gail Lapidus: ...keep your eye on the surrounding region, as well.

Peter Robinson: And the periphery.

Condoleezza Rice: I think I'll write that down.

Peter Robinson: Oh, you will?

Condoleezza Rice: Yes, that is good advice, yes.

Peter Robinson: David?

David Holloway: I agree the kind of nuclear agenda remains extremely important and there is a common interest in dealing with that. I agree also that we should think of this whole space. Russia is not isolated. We talk about an authoritarian Russia being a danger but weak neighboring states are a temptation and a danger for any Russian government.

Third, I think, not such personal politics. And we need to help build institutions in Russia and that is not done by just dealing with personalities.

Peter Robinson: How can we help build and institution in Russia?

David Holloway: By respecting the, their institutions and what their Parliament comes up with. We can give advice. We can have all kinds of contacts, for example, at the Congressional level to the Duma, you know, governors to regional governors and so on we...

Condoleezza Rice: I think you are...if you don't...and I agree with David completely. You have to tell the truth about Russia. You know, the fact of the matter is we've had a script about what was going on in Russia, we called reform reform when it wasn't reform. We talked about reformers when many of them were robbing the country blind. That gives us a credibility problem and if we just tell...

Peter Robinson: It gives the Clinton administration a credibility problem.

Condoleezza Rice: It gives, because the Clinton administration represents the United States of America. So we have to, as a country...

Peter Robinson: To check him, right?

Condoleezza Rice: We as a country...we only have one President at a time and we, as a country, have to tell the truth about Russia. I think they would appreciate it and we will have better policies if our knowledge is...

Peter Robinson: Predictions, predictions. Five years from now... Since, one of the most striking figures to me which sums up an awful lot about Russia, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, life expectancy has declined. People live less long in Russia today than they did under the old Soviet Regime. Five years from now will life expectancy in Russia be back up? Conde?

Condoleezza Rice: No.

Peter Robinson: It won't?

Condoleezza Rice: No.

Peter Robinson: David?

David Holloway: It will be starting to go back up.

Peter Robinson: Modestly?

David Holloway: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Gail?

Gail Lapidus: It may begin to turn around but it won't be anything dramatic.

Peter Robinson: So you all think this is going to take a long time. Now let me ask, revert to my favorite question. Five years from now will Lenin still be in the Red Square? Conde?

Condoleezza Rice: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Will it matter?

Condoleezza Rice: No.

Peter Robinson: Not to you. David? It will to me. David?

David Holloway: Yes, I think it will still be there.

Peter Robinson: Gail?

Gail Lapidus: Yes and it won't matter.

Peter Robinson: Yes, and it won't matter. Gail, David and Conde, thank you very much.

Condoleezza Rice: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: Life expectancy in Russia may be up five years from now, but just slightly. In other words, Russia, more winter. The only person who doesn't feel the cold may be Lenin. I am Peter Robinson, thanks for joining us.

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