'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, April 27, 2007

Yeltsin Remembered 

UPDATE: LarryE over at Lotus deconstructs Yeltsin's record as a purported democrat, and specifically explains how he exploited Gorbachev's weakness to concentrate power in himself.

INITIAL POST: Earlier this week, Boris Yeltsin died. It is one of those deaths that make you feel old, just like Kurt Vonnegut's a few weeks ago. I first recall hearing of Yeltsin during the Gorbachev years, glasnost and perestroika, those naive days when we believed that the end of the Cold War would lead to a new age. And, for a few years, it did. People with long memories will remember the peace dividend, the downsizing of the US military, something that it is incomprehensible today.

Yeltsin was a central player in the events that lead to the downfall of the Berlin Wall, the radical Moscow party boss that buried the dinosaurs of the Brezhnev era. As he once famously said, if I didn't exist, Gorbachev would have to invent me. In the mid to late 1980s, I was walking along Market Street in San Francisco, and the afternoon Examiner had a screaming headline, something to the effect, YELTSIN PURGED. But it was no longer the 1930s, the 1950s or even the 1970s, and his removal only enhanced his stature.

Recognizing that the process of decentralization within the Soviet Union was irreversible, he ran for the governorship of a major province, the Russia Republic, I think, and, after his subsequent victory, with the natural resources under his control, became nearly as powerful as Gorbachev, if not more so, because, as Gorbachev's power waned, Yeltsin's grew. Yeltsin was on the right side of history, riding the tiger of a process of decentralization and the opening of the Soviet economy to neoliberal finance capital, while Gorbachev, ever the romantic, naively thought that the US, Europe and Japan, the G-7, in other words, would reciprocate his gestures of disarmament and withdrawal from Eastern Europe with financial support.

Gorbachev erroneously believed that the G-7 would financially support the modernization of the Soviet Union, the creation of a Third Way between capitalism and socialism, under the leadership of reformers like him. Conversely, Yeltsin either consciously or subsconsciously understood that Gorbachev's belief was ridiculous, that the G-7 had no qualms about shattering the Soviet Union into pieces in order to loot the assets within it, sort of like breaking apart a multinational conglomerate and selling, or securitizing, through public offerings, the different businesses bound together by it. Chevron no longer wanted to deal with Moscow, rather it looked forward to working with regional apparatchiks like Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan. Admittedly, one can argue that the Europeans, especially the Germans, were not so ruthless in this regard.

In any event, Yeltsin was proven correct, and became the most powerful figure after the Soviet Union passed into history on December 31, 1991. At that point, as explained by Justin Raimondo, the fire sale began. State industries and resources plundered by former apparatchiks and their financial allies, the infamous oligarchs. Living standards plummeted, as did life expectancy. Russians were at the mercy of a network of gangsters, state security service operatives and oligarchs, a network analoguous to what one finds in much of China, as discussed here last year, all sheltered by Yeltsin, a President ruling with extraordinary decree powers, and promoted outside the country as liberal democrats by Western investors. Eventually, even powerful Russians within the system like Vladimir Putin had enough, and turned the country in a different direction, using the arbitrary police powers developed under Yeltsin against many of the very people who created them, or, at least, benefitted from them, oligarches like Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Raimondo describes much of this in great detail in his excellent column over at antiwar.com, which I highly recommend, and, as Raimondo recognizes, Yeltsin and those around him manipulated the war in Chechnya to achieve their ends. Raimondo fails to observe, however, and it is an uncharacteristic omission on his part, because he usually sees these sorts of connections, that the neoconservatives seized upon the governmental, business and social model of Yeltsin and the oligarchs in anticipation of coming to power, which they did, of course, after 9/11.

With the Russian frontier of ruthless neoliberalism now closed, it was necessary to find a new opportunity for exploitation: Iraq and, by extension, the entire Middle East. But Iraq serves another purpose as well. Just as Yeltsin and his entourage used Chechnya to loot the Russian economy, the neoconservatives are using Iraq to win a much greater prize: the looting of the US economy, a story that to this day goes woefully underreported as a series of piecemeal, seemingly unrelated scandals. The ambitions of the neoconservatives are global, including the US, and Yeltsin should be remembered as one of the architects of their grandiose strategy.

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