JULY 4, 1996
Elizabeth Farnsworth talks with two experts about what the surprising re-election of Boris Yeltsin means for Russia, Eastern Europe and America.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Two other perspectives now. They come from Condoleezza Rice, who was director of Soviet and East European affairs on the National Security Council staff from 1989 to '91. She's now provost at Stanford University, and from Leon Aron, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who is completing a biography of Boris Yeltsin. Thank you both for being with us. Beginning with you, Condoleezza Rice, how do you explain this extraordinary comeback from an 8 percent low approval rating in January to this victory? You heard Strobe Talbott refer to Boris Yeltsin's physical and political resilience. How do you explain it?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE, Stanford University: (Stanford) Well, there's no doubt that Boris Yeltsin is a truly resilient political figure. I think he used the powers of the incumbency quite well. I think he was helped by the fact that the independent press had a kind of coincidence of interest with him. I don't believe he controlled the press as much as they understood that if the Communists won, there would be no independent press, so they had every reason to support him and to put the best face on Yeltsin's campaign. I think by making it into the second round, he also managed to get the choice before the Russian people quite stark, i.e., to return to Communism, which was still discredited with the population or to keep stumbling forward with him and on that dimension, he won. I think it really is quite a remarkable triumph for him, although there are lots of clouds about his health and about the people around him now in the Kremlin. Yet, it is still a story of a pretty remarkable political comeback.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We'll come back to the health in a minute. Leon Aron, is this a pattern, this mental and political and physical revival?
LEON ARON, Yeltsin Biographer: Well, definitely. Yeltsin revives in crisis. I call it an addiction to the political equivalent of the spiciest food. It almost is--when the food doesn't burn his mouth, he does not like it. He falls apart mentally and physically sometimes when there is no stake or the stakes are fairly low, but when there are three conditions coinciding in front of him, he acts very well, and there that--there has to be a crisis with his back against the wall, sort of the graphite of his persona turns into diamond. He thrives on this negative energy. Secondly, there has to be a foe, an opponent that sort of presents a very comfortable target. And, of course, starting from Mikhail Gorbachev to Igor Ligachev to Gennady Zyuganov. That target was presented to him, and he was, in essence, lucky.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: By comfortable target, you mean a worthy foe?
MR. ARON: A worthy foe but also the foe that ultimately is not on a par with Yeltsin in terms of his feeling for the people and in terms of ultimately how congenial Russia finds him. But there is, of course, a third condition, and that is that a lot has to depend on Yeltsin. Better yet much and better yet everything, and so we had in this revival all the conditions lined up. He had the enemy and, and the foe that was a very big target. In essence, Yeltsin told the Russian people, it might sound vaguely familiar, it's freedom, stupid. You know, this is what it's all about. Secondly, there was a crisis, and virtually everything depended on Yeltsin and under those conditions he revives.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Condoleezza Rice, you got to observe Boris Yeltsin in the White House in 1989. Tell us about it.
MS. RICE: Well, Boris Yeltsin is someone who is not easily programmed. I think Leon is absolutely right. He is best when he, Boris Yeltsin, is in control and when everything depends on him. He's such a strong personality when he first came to the White House, for instance, he was determined to do it his way. He wanted to meet with President Bush, not in the way that we had particularly set it up. We found out something about this man. He's a very strong character.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You said he basically stood there with his arms crossed and said I won't go on.
MS. RICE: That's right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I want to meet with the President.
MS. RICE: That's right. He stood in the basement of the White House and told me that he would not go until I guaranteed him that he was going to meet with President Bush. We're not accustomed to that kind of attitude in the White House, but it is part of his strength. He is capable of mobilizing himself that way. But I think therein lies his weakness too. I would agree completely with what has been said. This is the man who is best in crisis. But once the crisis over, he has a tendency to withdraw from the stage. He has a tendency to be unable or uninterested in the day to day problems of governance. He needs now to translate some of this personal authority, some of this personal strength, into democratic institutions in Russia that can actually survive him. He needs to build a party. He needs to build a strong team around him. That is not what Boris Yeltsin is particularly good at doing. He's good at waving his fist on a tank or going up against strong enemies or presenting a stark contrast between himself and evil. Now he needs to move on to the next phase, or this consolidation in Russia will not complete.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What kind of a democrat is he?
MR. ARON: Well, you know, he is like the country that he's leading, and that country is sort of wading knee deep in the devastating legacy of 400 years of absolutism and 75 years of totalitarianism. And as that country is pulling itself, literally by the bootstraps, it clearly is not one piece. It has--it has part of it's that oriented toward the past and it's part of it that's towards the future. And you could see it in Boris Yeltsin. I mean, on the one hand, you know, there was a--there was an unnecessary, cruel, vicious war in Chechnya. He surrounded himself with sycophants and some of his staff was barely competent. He--when the parliament would not dissolve to adopt a new constitution in 1993, he dissolved the parliament and presented them with the ultimatum. On the other hand, like again, like the country he is leading, under Yeltsin basic rudiments of democracy came into play, and Russia has acquired the degree of liberty that not only is completely unprecedented in Russian history but also is something that nobody imagined Russia would achieve. You know, under Yeltsin, not a single newspaper was closed, not a single political opponent arrested, non-violent political opponent, and violent ones were amnestied three months after the coup.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Condoleezza Rice, what impact will his health have on what happens next? It's clear even if he's not as sick as people speculated a couple of days ago right now that his health is--he has apparently myocardial ischemia, which is a problem in the arteries leading to the heart.
MS. RICE: I would just underline what was said in your report by Andrei Kortunov. Boris Yeltsin now has around him in the Kremlin very strong independent-minded men who have very disparate agendas. It's not clear to me that Alexander Lebed, Anatoly Chubais, and Viktor Chernomyrdin are going to get along all that well. Boris Yeltsin has to tame his own entourage and set the direction for Russian policy. The real issue is will he have the health and energy and drive to do that? Because it is his tendency after winning a victory like this to withdraw to the sidelines.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mm-hmm.
MS. RICE: It would be a real pity if the Russian election, which I think is a real victory for the Russian people, the way that this was done, if that election now turns to Kremlin intrigue because Boris Yeltsin is not able to set the direction for his government, we will have problems. I think that's the real issue of his health. Of course, if he were to die soon, there would be issues of succession. But I think the more likely problem is whether or not he will really have the energy and drive to control his own administration.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I want to ask you that question too, what the effect will be, but first, why does he have the tendency to withdraw? You're writing a biography. What are you finding out?
MR. ARON: Well, for one thing, you know, Yeltsin's game, Yeltsin's favorite sport is volleyball, and I found it almost a perfect metaphor for him and his political persona. I mean, what is, after all, volleyball? It's sort of a lightning preparation, a momentary exhibition and strain on all your faculties and, and skills, and then a result. And after that, you relax and withdraw. So it seems to me that this is how Yeltsin operates. This is how he operated when he was a party boss in Swerdlosk, now called Yipaterinburg, umm, and I believe this is just a part of his personality.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what will the effects be? Do you agree with Ms. Rice that he needs to be there and be there in a strong way because of these strong people around him who may disagree?
MR. ARON: Most certainly, most certainly. It's a very disparate team that he has there, and there are three centers of power now in the Kremlin: one, Yeltsin, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, Alexander Lebed is the third. It could very well be that the three of them managed to work together. After all, each of them has a following, and each of them has a base, and the majority of the Russians are obviously with them, with the three of them. Now whether they work in concert, it was proven that Yeltsin could work with Chernomyrdin, Lebed is largely an untested quality here.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you both very much for being with us on this July 4th.