Yeltsin's Chess Game

Boris presses his advantage.


The present chapter of Soviet politics opened on October 16,1990, when, after a month and a half of flirting with a radical market reform plan, the 500-Day Plan, Gorbachev announced to the Supreme Soviet his own conservative and gradualist Presidential Program of economic reform. In so doing, he formally broke his August 30 agreement with Boris Yeltsin and, in effect, attempted to arrest and even reverse the course he had set in 1985.

On that day, the reformist Communist regime, Gorbachev-1 (1985–1990), ended, and the reactionary Communist regime, Gorbachev-2, began. On that day, the strands of the Soviet crisis were tightened into a Gordian knot that could no longer be undone by compromise and conciliation. It could only be cut by the victor in a fierce, perhaps violent, political struggle. On that day, the regime's radical but loyal critic, Boris Yeltsin, chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Russia, turned into an implacable opponent, seeking the regime's destruction.

Gorbachev-2 responded in kind. After several months of relentless attacks in media controlled by the Kremlin, Communist deputies in the Supreme Soviet of Russia called for an emergency session of the parent legislature, the Congress of People's Deputies, to oust Yeltsin. The opening of the Congress on March 28 set in motion a political seesaw that was remarkable even by the standards of the bustling and rough Soviet political playground. During the next eight days, Yeltsin's fortune ebbed and flowed.

Democratic Russia, a loose alliance of prodemocracy movements, called for a demonstration in support of Yeltsin. Gorbachev responded by prohibiting all demonstrations in Moscow. The Russian Congress, in the first hours of its session, voted to ignore the presidential decree. At least 100,000 people demonstrated, calling for Gorbachev's resignation. After raking Yeltsin over the coals for four days, the Communist majority of the Congress suddenly gave up the attempt to unseat him. Yet the next day Yeltsin lost the key vote on the constitutional amendment that would create an executive Russian presidency—a position that Yeltsin likely would have won in a republic-wide election. Then Yeltsin startled the Congress by requesting—and receiving—largely symbolic "emergency powers" to match those of Gorbachev.

Although Yeltsin's victory was by no means unqualified, those eight days of Moscow spring produced the final confirmation of his status as the undisputed de facto leader of the democratic opposition to the increasingly reactionary, neo-Communist Gorbachev-2 regime. This position was not bestowed on Yeltsin by good fortune: It was earned by courage, skill, and determination in the prosecution of daily political warfare, the intensity of which Russia has not known since the end of the civil war in 1920. With virtually no effective power and shielded only by his popularity, Yeltsin turned his tiny political space into a beachhead from which he mounted a direct assault on the post-October 16 Gorbachev regime.

So far, Yeltsin has had two dates with Russian history. The first one was on October 21, 1987, when, at the meeting of the then all-powerful Central Committee of the Communist Party, he protested the slow speed of reform. Vilified by his colleagues, he was stripped of his party positions—but gained a giant and intense popular following. The second historic event came in the early morning of January 13, when Yeltsin was awakened by the news of the Vilnius massacre, in which 14 unarmed Lithuanians were killed as Soviet "special forces" stormed a television tower. Not wasting a minute, Yeltsin flew to Tallinn to demonstrate his solidarity with the first victims of Gorbachev-2.

At the time, I was in Moscow as a guest of the Russian Supreme Soviet. The democrats were in total disarray. The mood of the opposition had reached an all-time low. Everything appeared to be lost. Russia's second experiment with quasi-democracy seemed to be destined to end the way the first one, in 1917, did—by the advent of a new dictatorship.

It was against this background that Yeltsin, just returned from the Baltics, held a press conference on January 14. Totally neglected by the U.S. media, the conference, I am convinced, will be looked upon by future historians as a turning point in the Second Russian Revolution. There was not a hint of defeat in Yeltsin's words or demeanor. He attacked Gorbachev on the entire front: from the betrayal of democracy in the Baltics to negating "even those modest first steps that had been made on the road to a new Union treaty."

Yeltsin appealed to the Russian soldiers in the Baltics: "Remember your own hearth, the present and the future of your own republic, your own people. Violence against the legality, against the people of the Baltics will engender new crisis in Russia itself." Finally, Yeltsin revealed that the leaders of Russia, the Ukraine, Byelorussia, and Kazakhstan—the four largest republics, accounting for 85 percent of the Soviet GNP—were preparing to sign an agreement creating, in effect, their own union, which would not be ruled from the Kremlin.

The press conference revitalized the democratic opposition. A massive and pointedly political strike of the Soviet miners, who demanded Gorbachev's resignation, arrived just in time to strengthen Yeltsin's position. The lowest point of the nascent Russian democracy appeared to have passed.

Yet, like the proverbial man on a bicycle, whose only insurance against falling is to keep pedaling, Yeltsin pressed on. First, on February 19, he "dissociated" himself from Gorbachev in a television interview and called upon Soviet citizens to make their choice. Only three weeks later, on March 9, addressing the Democratic Russia movement, he called for a "declaration of war" on the Kremlin.

In addition to the daily tug-of-war with the Kremlin, Yeltsin has been very profitably engaged in another, extremely delicate, not yet fully visible, but critical enterprise: managing what might be called Russia's post-colonial relations with the rest of the Soviet Union. Since his election to the chairmanship of Russia's Supreme Soviet, he has concluded a myriad of political, economic, and cultural agreements with virtually all of the union's 14 other republics.

Yeltsin's idea of a new union, built "horizontally" with complete equality for all the participants (as opposed to what Yeltsin describes as a "vertical" structure, imposed by the Kremlin), is as popular in the republics as Gorbachev's Moscow-centric design is despised. In a political masterstroke that greatly undermined the Kremlin's position, Yeltsin linked his two campaigns—against the neo-Communist Gorbachev-2 and for a loose confederation of fully independent post-Soviet republics—into a demand for the transfer of power from the Kremlin to the Council of Federation, consisting of the presidents of the 15 republics.

In addition, Yeltsin has raised the price in blood of any large-scale crackdown that Gorbachev's new partners may contemplate. Had it not been for Yeltsin, Gorbachev-2 would most likely have opted for a salami technology of repression—cutting democracy slice by slice, quietly arresting, firing, closing down newspapers, and canceling television programs. But here is Yeltsin—big, stubborn, immensely popular—undermining the regime's plans for a sub-rosa state terrorism campaign. To "pacify" the nation, the Kremlin would have to get rid of Yeltsin first—and risk bringing millions of rioters into the streets.

Until his election to the chairmanship of the Russian Supreme Soviet, Yeltsin's popularity (currently at 70 percent versus 14 percent for Gorbachev) was due largely, if not exclusively, to his being against something rather than for something. He got where he is by harnessing perhaps the most powerful popular emotion: hatred of nomenklatura privileges. Since May 1989, Yeltsin, surrounded by aides widely perceived as superior to Gorbachev's, has added more sophisticated and positive planks to his platform.

In economics, he has changed from a proponent of a "controlled market" to a radical free-marketer. As he wrote in a magazine article, people should have the right to work freely and freely dispose of the products of their labor." Under his prodding, the Russian Supreme Soviet passed the radical 500-Day Plan last November—only to see it scrapped by the Kremlin. Yeltsin's most immediate goal is wide-scale privatization of land. He hopes to distribute land to all who want to work on it by the end of spring.

In federal relations, Yeltsin favors full and immediate independence for republics that want it and a free confederation of equal states for the rest. What he does not desire (contrary to the image created by Western media) is the presidency of the Soviet Union: To the post of captain of the Titanic he, quite understandably, prefers that of skipper of a smaller but sturdier ship.

Likewise, Yeltsin's "popularity" much feared in the same media, seems to be less of a danger now than it was even a year ago. Of course, the real test of Yeltsin's alleged "dictatorial tendencies" will come only when he has real political power. Still, the rapid political maturation of both Yeltsin and, more important, the Russian people makes it unlikely that he will emerge as a populist dictator.

Soviet politics today hang in a precarious balance. Yet the growing radicalization and maturity of the grass-roots anti-Communist movement (as exemplified by the miners' strike) on the one hand, and the suicidal economic policy of the regime (the confiscatory monetary reform and the draconian April 2 price increases) on the other, leave the pieces on the political chessboard arranged in Yeltsin's favor.

The game has been postponed with a tactical advantage to Yeltsin. A strapping 6-footer, Yeltsin prefers volleyball and tennis to chess. Yet given the political distance he has traveled in the last six months or so, there is little reason to doubt that he will do everything he can to convert his current tactical edge into major, perhaps decisive, strategic gains.

Leon Aron, Salvatori Senior Political Analyst in Soviet Studies at the Heritage Foundation, is working on a political biography of Yeltsin.