Yeltsin's Legacy

Yeltsin's Legacy

Michael McFaul

Days after staring down the August 1991 coup attempt, Russian President Boris Yeltsin boasted a 90 percent...

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1m 29sec

Days after staring down the August 1991 coup attempt, Russian President Boris Yeltsin boasted a 90 percent approval rating at home, adorned the cover of every international weekly in the world, and was christened a democratic hero by world leaders from Washington to Tokyo. When he suddenly resigned as president on December 31, 1999, Yeltsin enjoyed an eight percent approval rating at home (with a margin of error of plus or minus four percent). He probably had only two or three international calls to make. With the exception of Bill Clinton and a few others, Yeltsin had almost no friends in high places left. Even the Western media all but ignored the passing of this onetime hero. When Clinton appeared that morning to comment on Yeltsin's retirement, most American television networks chose instead to air the fireworks display in Beijing.

Many would argue that Yeltsin's pathetic passing from power correctly reflected his performance as Russia's first democratically elected president. In part, it did. In his resignation speech, Yeltsin himself apologized to the people of Russia for his mistakes, a rare act for any politician but especially out of character for this fighter. For many in Russia (and abroad), the apology was too little, too late. As he left office, a war was under way in Chechnya, the state had just manipulated a parliamentary election, and rampant corruption had stymied economic reform. Still, for many others, Yeltsin's parting plea for redemption sparked nostalgia for a fallen hero. And Yeltsin certainly deserves credit for monumental achievements. On his watch, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was destroyed, the largest empire on earth was peacefully dismantled, and electoral democracy was introduced into a country with a thousand-year history of autocratic rule.

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About the Author

Michael McFaul is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an assistant professor of political science and Hoover Institution Fellow at Stanford University. He writes widely on Russia and U.S.-Russian affairs.

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