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As Russia's new president Vladimir Putin takes the helm of a nation teetering on the edge of collapse after a decade of chaos, poverty amd corruption, FRONTLINE's "Return of the Czar" explores the role played by Boris Yeltsin -- and the unwavering U.S. support he enjoyed -- in the failure of Russia's attempts at political and economic transformation during the 1990s.

"When we first visited Moscow more than a decade ago, Russians at the forefront of change were trying their best to make what they called 'American-style democracy' work," says producer Sherry Jones. "Today, the Russia Vladimir Putin inherits is increasingly militarized and often anti-American in rhetoric and outlook."

While the West applauded former president Boris Yeltsin's market reforms during the 1990s, FRONTLINE interviews Russian observers and former US policymakers who contend these reforms came at a terrible price: they took precedence over building democratic institutions and processes, impoverished millions of Russians, and encouraged massive corruption.

In addition to tracking the increasing divisiveness of U.S.-backed reform efforts during the 1990s--from Yeltsin's adoption of a Western scheme to shock the economy into new behavior, to the looting of state assets under the fast-track privatization program, to the scandalous "Loans for Shares" auctions which enriched a handful of Kremlin-connected bankers --"Return of the Czar" talks to critics of U.S. policy who say America erred in placing all of its democratic eggs in Boris Yeltsin's basket. Time and again, when faced with choosing between democratic reform and Yeltsin, the U.S. sided with Yeltsin.

"The message was very clear," according to Russian political analyst Yevgenia Albats. "As long as you continue the path of market reforms, as long as you allow us not to worry about your nukes, do whatever you want."

According to Donald Jensen, former second secretary at the U.S. Embassy, "open warfare" broke out among embassy staff over the direction of U.S. policy; cables to Washington called attention to the increasing corruption, Russia's new oligarchs and the political consequences of Washington's economic prescriptions.

In the concluding chapters of "Return of the Czar," Russians and Russia analysts assess Yeltsin's leadership and legacy, the impact of the Chechen war, Russia's disillusionment with the West, and the uncertainties and fears about the new Putin era.

The staunchest defenders of democracy, human rights and a free press in Russia are worried what the Putin presidency will bring. Sergei Kovalev, who was Yeltsin's commissioner of human rights until he resigned over the war in Chechnya, says he is a "dark pessimist" when he envisions what the next several years will bring for his country. "We may look back on the year 2000 as the twilight of Russian democracy."

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