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by John Helmer, Moscow 

June 12 marks the anniversary of Boris Yeltsin’s election as President of Russia.

It is no moment for celebration.

The government which he led successfully over the attempted putsch of last August and through the disintegration of the Soviet Union now lacks credible authority in the Russian federation and among its people.

There is no agreement on a constitution to hold the federation together, or to divide the power granted by Russian votes for
president and parliament.

If the 18th century tax revolt known as the Boston Tea Party can be said to have begun the revolution for American independence, then the withholding of taxes by several regions and republics may be the beginning of another Russian revolution — this one against Russia itself.

The reform process which has been the basis of Yeltsin’s popular appeal is out of his control, and the economy he is responsible for is no longer operating rationally or predictably.

These are the claims of economic critics, like his former deputy prime minister, Grigoriy Yavlinskiy. They are also the claims of political critics as diverse in their parliamentary alignments as the constitutionalist Oleg Rumyantsev, and the nationalist Sergei Baburin.

Although the nationalists and their parliamentary allies — amounting to roughly a third of the Congress of Peoples Deputies — have called for the replacement of the government, they have not targeted President Yeltsin directly — not until last Friday.

The question for the President and his supporters is not whether they believe the criticisms of his performance are right or fair, but whether he can survive the situation a simple majority of Russians, and a larger majority of its ruling class, are certain the country now faces.

Those beliefs can be summed up in two convictions:

The government’s loss of authority will come to end, and the economic irrationality also. Fundamental political and economic changes are inevitable.

Whether President Yeltsin is carried off by these changes, whether he chooses to walk away from them, or whether he can survive to lead Russia are the questions everyone asks, and every Russian has the right to answer. But noone can be confident that a new Russian consensus can be agreed, or that the president will be part of it.

Former President Gorbachev is no wiser prophet than others for predicting a shorter rather than a longer time span. Few believe he will be a beneficiary if the prediction he makes to Western visitors of Yeltsin’s demise comes true.

Unfortunately for Yeltsin, his circle has been narrowing; this is customary in conditions of crisis. The strain is also showing in the
President’s demeanour. He can’t be cheered by the good-news advisors, and he can’t avoid hearing the bad news. But even those who are closest to him cannot credibly deny what everyone else believes.

First Deputy Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar has conceded the substance of the economic criticisms. In his most recent interview, he told Izvestia “there is a slump”. He qualified that only by saying “it is so far smaller than had been expected.” He has qualified the economic decline by saying it is “no catastrophe”.

Gaidar concedes the government has lost its political authority. “Virtually no government instructions were complied with”, he said, qualifying that this was in April, at the time of the last Congress. Despite improvement since then, he admits, “there is still no new and sufficiently efficient mechanism for enforcing government decisions.”

Gaidar also acknowledges the unpredictability of the economy and the irrationality of policy-making to deal with it. He qualifies this by saying there “were errors with percentages and dates”. In his opinion, it is the politicians who should be held to promises; professionals and administrators are bound to make misjudgements “when you get down to the practical aspects of programmes.”

What can President Yeltsin resolve to do on this anniversary?

He is grasping at straws if he makes new promises of economic recovery or if he demands new powers. The failure of promises he made a year ago is the reason he lacks the power he wants to exercise now. An autumn referendum would expose this, if he dares to call it.

He is also fooling himself if he believes his appeals to the Western leaders he will be meeting in the next few weeks will extract him, or the country, from its present predicament. A minority of Russians believed this in February; far fewer now.

Russia is going to be forced to look inward, not outward, for the relief of this crisis. No matter what conditions are agreed with the International Monetary Fund, there will be no rescue from the West.

The President has not showed himself to be an introspective man. But he has a talent his predecessor lacked for listening to others. As Russia looks inward to save itself, the best resolution for Yeltsin to make today is to go outside his circle, and perhaps inside himself, to hear what Russians and common sense are saying.

[*] This piece is 32 years old; it was first published on July 10,1992.   By that time the Russian Federation had dismantled the Soviet Union, and Boris Yeltsin had replaced Mikhail Gorbachev. The year before,Yeltsin had won election as President of the Russian Republic on June 12, 1991. He polled 58.6% of the first-round vote -- just enough to avoid a runoff against Nikolai Ryzhkov who drew 17.1%; Yeltsin’s number was within the 10% margin he and his handlers were able to fabricate. The date became a national holiday in 1992 when, officially, it commemorated the act of two years before, June 12, 1990. That was the vote of the thousand-member Russian Congress of People’s Deputies to adopt the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.    

A few days earlier, Yeltsin had taken leadership of the Congress by a vote reported to have been just 50.52%. The Declaration of State Sovereignty started secession from the Soviet Union and Yeltsin’s seizure of power from Gorbachev, as the document promulgated “the supremacy of the RSFSR [Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic] Constitution and laws of the RSFSR throughout the territory of the RSFSR; the effect of acts of the USSR which are contrary to the sovereign rights of the RSFSR shall be suspended by the Republic on its territory.”  

Historically, this is the point of the June 12 commemoration,   although only 6% of Russians told a Levada Centre poll in June 2015  they recognize it for that;  another 33% believed June 12 is an independence day. As the years roll by, for most “Russia Day” is the start of the summer holiday season, like the British Spring Bank Holiday and US Memorial Day held on the last Monday in May.  The 2015 poll was the last time the Levada Centre asked Russians what they think of June 12.   

President Vladimir Putin has never mentioned Yeltsin's name in his annual Russia Day speech. At the 2019 Kremlin celebration with then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (photo right), Putin recalled "the drastic changes that took place during the 1990s. We remember this hard period well, as everything changed – our economic structure and public and human relations." Since then Putin has omitted even that.

The president’s reason is that Russian sentiment towards Yeltsin has grown steadily more negative than Putin has admitted for himself. According to a Levada poll of February 2023, “the highest rates of positive attitude towards the first president were observed in the first few years after his death in 2007 (about 17%). Then the attitude began to deteriorate again: in December 2015, 14% had a positive attitude towards him, in 2021 – 10%, in January of this year – only 8%. Correspondlngly, the share of respondents who have a negative attitude to the first president of Russia has increased: if in 2010 and 2015 they were about 35%, then in 2021 – 46%, and at the beginning of 2023 – already half. Slightly more than a third (35%) express neutral emotions towards Boris Yeltsin.”  

Source: https://www.levada.ru/

On June 12, 2021, Putin said the holiday “symbolises our Fatherland’s contemporary development, as well as its continuous centuries-old path, the grandeur of its history, endeavours, victories and achievements.”  His speech now accompanies the annual presentation  of Hero of Labour medals and Russian Federation National Awards for individual achievements in science, technology, literature, art,  human rights,  and philanthropy.  “This national holiday,” the president said at the 2023 ceremony, “marks the continuity of the many centuries of our history, the glory and grandeur of our Fatherland, the unity of our multi-ethnic people, our loyalty to our country and our cordial affection for our beloved Motherland.”

On the Telegram channel of Medvedev, the former prime minister, former president says nothing at all about June 12.

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