Deconstructing Yeltsin

PRINCETON: Around the world commentators fondly insist that Boris Yeltsin's relations with reality are episodic, unpredictable, erratic, maybe even insane. Sacking your entire cabinet when everyone thinks you are home sick in bed only adds to this impression. But those who subscribe to it are very wrong.

True, Yeltsin is not the healthiest president Russia has ever had, but his actions in dismissing his government are neither strange nor the result of illness. They are very Russian. The sheer "Russianness" of Russia’s president should not be hard for outsiders to grasp. The problem is that, for years, the world has misinterpreted Yeltsin. By declaring himself anti-communist a decade ago, Yeltsin earned the nearly unconditional support of the United States and the West. But being a democrat does not make Yeltsin any less Russian. Every time he does something typically Russian, the world (America most of all) seems genuinely stunned. Rash and rushed attempts are made to explain away his behavior as caused by bad advisers, old age, failing health, and/or a feeble mental capacity.

It is, of course, difficult to make sense of someone who declares himself just like you and then acts in ways you can scarcely fathom. Look again at Yeltsin's actions over the past five years, however, and each makes perfect sense from the point-of-view of an authoritarian Russian leader a little modernized and democratized by the existence of open borders.

In 1993 Russia’s president ordered his tanks to open fire at his own Parliament, excusing this as necessitated by a threat to democracy. In 1994 Yeltsin started a war in Chechnya, insisting that guns were the only means with which to deal with uppity nationalist rebels. In 1995 at the United Nations he declared that Russia would not support an American presence in Bosnia; after a personal meeting with President Clinton, however, he suddenly agreed to back up the American president, apparently for the sake of the presidential buddy system. After being out of his office for almost a year because of illness, on his return in March 1997 Yeltsin sacked practically his entire cabinet, accusing them of not working, and claiming that a little anxiety was a good way to teach Russians how to do their jobs.