Staunton, August 9 – Fifteen years ago, Boris Yeltsin chose Vladimir Putin as his successor, a choice that by its very nature reflected something the two men had in common: a lack of desire to serve as presidents of Russia and the inability and unwillingness of Russian society to force them to do so, according to Vitaly Portnikov.
Yeltsin’s choice of Putin, the Russian commentator says, and the willingness of Russians to go alone happened because the first Russian president “simply could not choose anyone other than an individual capable of giving him personal guarantees – and such people never were reformers” but instead reflected “the most negative aspects of the heritage of [their] predecessor” (grani.ru/opinion/portnikov/m.231885.html).
Fifteen years ago on this date, President Yeltsin named Putin his prime minister and declared that he wanted to see him as his successor. Many observers at the time found it hard to believe that Yeltsin would and could choose a virtual unknown for this job. But it turned out, Portnikov says, that he could and did.
Yeltsin in reality had not such a large choice, the Russian analyst continues, because he had lost faith in the nomenklatura and very much feared that he and his family could become figures in corruption trials.
Given that, Portnikov says, “the new president could become only an individual personally devoted to him,” whose origins were in the Russian security services, and who could become “a real power after the beginning of the wars in the Caucasus.”
“All three of the last prime ministers of Boris Yeltsin were from the special services,” but Putin enjoyed an advantage over the other two: “he was weaker than Primakov and less notable than Stepashin. Namely such a successor was the one Yeltsin needed.”
At a time when decisions needed to be made not only about the future of the country “but about its very existence, Piontkovsky continues, there was no one in the Kremlin thinking about Russia” but only about saving their own skins or making money, although it is true that Putin preserved and developed much that Yeltsin had already begun.
Yeltsin had fewer resources than Putin, and Putin took “almost a decade for the final conversion of the Russian Federation into an authoritarian dictatorship of the Latin American type, with the qualities of an aggressor who is ready to fight with arms in his hands against those who do not subordinate themselves to his rules of the game.”
But something even deeper united Yeltsin and Putin and even Medvedev, Portnikov argues, and that is “the lack of desire to work as president of Russia.” Instead, all were animated by a sense that Russia was only a tiny part of “the real empire” that they wanted to reclaim. While Yeltsin didn’t invade Crimea, he did support separatists across the region so that Moldova and Georgia could not build their own statehoods, and he kept the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict going.
Russian society accepted this, the commentator says, and that allowed these leaders to “conduct two bloody wars in Chechnya, which practically destroyed Russian democracy and gave Putin the possibility in literally a few weeks to put Russia on a military track after the collapse of the Yanukovich regime.”
Many still think that in 1999, “Russian history could have gone alone another path if Yeltsin had chosen another heir. But in fact, Portnikov argues, the phrase, ‘Yeltsin’s choice,’” shows there was no “historic choice.” Instead, the collapse of Russian statehood was pre-ordained by failure of Russian society to take responsibility “for the future of its own country.”