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u.s. policy on russia during the yeltsin era
photo of Yevgenia AlbatsYevgenia Albats

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She is an independent journalist and the author of KGB: State Within a State.
I'm not sure that the policy at any step along the way was ever thought out well enough to understand what was being created.

There was no real effort made in order to figure out the reality in Russia. There were a lot of perceptions. There were a lot of books written on the history of the Soviet Union by the people who never visited this country and had little understanding about what was going on. There was the perception that after the Soviet Union fell apart, we can very quickly set up democracy and market economhy in the country.

What does it seem that the U.S. wanted in Russia? Democracy or simply unfettered free markets?

I don't want to believe in the conspiracy theorists. I think that the United States did want Russia to become a good state, and for good reasons. The Soviet Union was a threat to the democratic world during all the decades of its history and, therefore, from the Russian point of view, the United States had tried to do their best to weaken Russia as a military rival.

Secondly, I think that many of those who advised the American administration judged Russia by its bad political culture. And therefore there was a sort of assumption that because Russia had such an undemocratic political culture, there was no need to try to create any real democratic situations in Russia. Probably the theory and the whole conception of the American politics was--'Let's help to turn Russian government-owned enterprises into the private hands." And that's it.

I want to point out that the kind of changes that happened to Russia over those 10 years were great. That, in fact, I do think that what happened to Russia is a sort of a miracle because Russia escaped from the fate of Yugoslavia. We escaped the civil war. The empire got dissolved without overwhelming killings and without a civil war. That's a real miracle and that's a real great advantage. That's a real great achievement of the Yeltsin regime and he should be credited for that.

However, I think that there was great disbelief about the possibility of establishing the true democracy of the Russian soil on both sides of the ocean.

I think, you know, if we ask those involved in the policies towards Russia in the United States if they believed in the possibility of creating a democratic state in Russia, I think the answer will be, no, we didn't believe. We knew it was impossible. Russian political culture doesn't, and didn't, allow for that. So, our goal was to make Russia less dangerous to the United States, therefore, to make the life of the American taxpayers more secure and they succeeded in that. And, secondly, help Russians get on the road to market reforms. In this respect, I think U. S .policy succeeded.

Jonas Bernstein

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He is a senior analyst for the Jamestown Foundation and writes from Moscow on Russian domestic affairs. He was a writer with Voice of America and has worked as a business columnist with The Moscow Times, and as Moscow representative and program officer for Freedom House.
My sense of this is that the economic policies that were adopted here, and that were encouraged by, for instance, the U.S. government and other Western governments--the international financial institutions--these policies, in and of themselves, were not bad. In other words, to create a market system, and to be a part of the creation of a democratic, open society-- privatization, even--none of these things were bad in of themselves. It was simply the way that it was actually executed here.

It became apparent, at least to me, fairly early on--and, you know, this is by simply following the Russian principle, that many Russians were reporting, that what was supposed to be going on, which was an empowerment of the average person, bringing him into a market system, making him a stakeholder, et cetera--was not going on at all, but [that] there was really kind of a large-scale heist going on of the former Soviet economy. And a lot of people were talking about that, fairly early on in the process here, but there was sort of cognitive dissonance about it in the West...

Did we, in the end, continue to cheerlead for Yeltsin as a democrat and a reformer far after [we had reason to think he wasn't]?

Absolutely. The first questions probably should have been raised in the October 1993 parliamentary uprising which Yeltsin crushed with force. That was a murky affair in the sense that the people who led the rebellion were unattractive, to put it mildly. But, at the same time, the, the ruthlessness with which it was put down should have been a signal to Washington, to other Western governments, that there was more than an authoritarian streak in Boris Yeltsin and in his administration. But we had already staked on Yeltsin, and several months after that rebellion was crushed, we basically signed off on the new December 1993 constitution which enshrined near-authoritarian powers in the Russian presidency. In that sense, we were saying, at that point, [that] our policy towards Russia is Boris Yeltsin. He is the embodiment of our policy in Russia. We were picking individuals.

What was our policy? Was it honestly to promote, to try to help this country become a democracy?

. . . I think there was a sense--it was sort of a combination of arrogance and naivete--that we could just plug in our model of a market democracy. Sort of like a tape player, you just plug it and turn it on, and it works, and everything is fine. And we also thought that there was just no way that the Russians themselves wouldn't like it. Of course it didn't turn out the way, the way it should have turned out, if we were genuinely concerned about developing a real democratic state....The result was, probably on some levels, the American government became cynical. But, I think a lot of it was just really based on this combination of arrogance and naivete that it would be that easy to do, and it didn't turn out that way.


What about the Clinton Administration defense that they had no choice? Boris Yeltsin was the democratically elected leader of this country, and of course they had to deal with Boris Yeltsin. That's what governments do.

That can sort of become the fallback position for defending any policy. I don't rule out the possibility that the way things turned out might have been inevitable, but I don't really know that, and whatever leverage we had, I think there was more than ample room to try to use it. For instance, there is still talk that the 1993 referendum, in December 1993, which was held simultaneously with parliamentary elections, and which approved the constitution, which Russia now operates under, was rigged. That constitution basically gives Yeltsin nearly dictatorial powers, or, certainly, authoritarian powers, and there were a lot of good democrats back then who were questioning whether this is the right thing to do. They said, "Even if you like Yeltsin, what if somebody else gets in?"

So we could have said something, back then. We could have said, even in a diplomatic way, that we would approve something less where there was more respect for the separation of powers. So, no, I think that's a copout. I think that there was room for skillfully trying to push the Russian government, as long as the Russian government was a recipient of aid, the basis of which was that it was moving toward a democratic form of government. There was room to try to push them more in that direction. And it was never ever tried as far as I could see.


How much of the failures can be blamed on misguided U.S. policy?

Again, I don't know. It's a hard thing, in the end, to say whether it would have been different, depending upon the role the U.S. government had played, and the kind of advice that it gave. I think I've gotten, sadly, in a sense, sort of a renewed appreciation for the huge role that sort of historical legacy and historical baggage plays in development.

In other words, Russia has had an authoritarian system of governance for centuries. It had the experience with Soviet style communism for seven decades prior to this. It makes it very difficult for the kinds of things one would hope to see happen.

But, again, I think that is sort of an irrelevant question. If we were going to pursue a policy where we were going to be that intimately involved in the internal politics and economics of the country, we should have insisted that what we hoped to happen, happened. And if it didn't happen, we should have publicly spoken out against it.

photo of Janine R. WedelJanine R. Wedel

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The author of Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe, she is a research fellow in the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University.
Well, I think clearly that there was a lot of ignorance involved in what reform was really about and what reforming a system that had come from 70 years of communism would take, and that you had to involve institutions. That reforms were by definition political. That it wasn't just a technical, neutral endeavor, that you had to really involve the whole spectrum of players of people of market, participants of legislatures, etc.

There wasn't that realization. And in some respects one shouldn't have expected there to be that realization, because these were new phenomena -- how to reform a post-communist system...some of the ignorance was understandable.

However, what was, I think, not understandable and not excusable was the sheer arrogance and the hubris with which many of these advisors entered the scene and said we have the answers. We know what to do. And they came with their cliches and tried to sell people on both sides of the Atlantic on these cliches and on the idea that they had the answers.

photo of E. Wayne  MerryE. Wayne  Merry

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He was Chief Political Analyst at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from 1990-1994.
American policy has always declared that what we wanted to see in Russia and in the other countries of the Soviet Union was the growth of democracy, civil society, rule of law, and, the growth of a market economy, free enterprise, capitalism. There's always been a problem in understanding that those two things don't necessarily go hand in hand. In some cases you may have to choose one or the other.

And I think what did happen is that by force of circumstance, the U.S. government was forced to choose. And we chose the economic over the political. We chose the freeing of prices, privatization of industry, and the creation of a really unfettered, unregulated capitalism, and essentially hoped that rule of law, civil society, and representative democracy would develop somehow automatically as a result of that.

I mean, part of this was an ideological view--very prevalent in Washington, in both the Bush and Clinton administrations--that capitalism brings democracy as an inevitable consequence. And this is really an ideological belief, not a tested demonstrable theory applicable to a place like post-Soviet Russia.


And you've said that we push policies that essentially said 'greed is good?'

I think our attitude was that what Russia really needed in its culture was the idea of greed. That the Soviet Communist egalitarian leveling approach had been so deadening to enterprise, so deadening to individual initiative that there was a view that a little greed would be a very healthy thing in Russia.

I think what many of these people did not understand was that greed had been part and parcel of the Soviet Communist system. It had simply operated under-the-counter. Nobody got along according to the rules in the Soviet Union, and that in fact the basis for a very large-scale organized crime existed well back in the Soviet period and began to flourish enormously during perestroika, and once all the controls were off within the end of the Soviet Union, these criminal gangs and many of their new associates in business suits had the ability to rob what is still an enormously rich country and make fantastic sums of money.

I don't think that in post-Soviet Russia the real problem was a lack of greed. The problem was a lack of genuine law, because in the Soviet period, what passed for law, what passed for legality, what passed for law enforcement, were so discredited in the minds of the Russian people--and quite legitimately discredited--that what was really needed in the post-Soviet Russia was a new culture of law, a new culture of civic society, not a culture of greed.

What if anything did our policies have to do with creating the oligarchs?

I think our policies had a great deal to do with creating the oligarchs. I know there has been more recent tendency by the spokesmen from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and from the U.S. Treasury to claim that this was really all things Russia did to itself. But in the early post-Soviet era, Washington--both through the IMF and U.S. Treasury--played an enormous role in determining what kinds of economic policies would be created, what kind of winners and losers there would be.

Some of the people who later came to be called the oligarchs were among the most favored private businessmen in terms of doing all kinds of contractual relationships and in having the kind of political access that made it possible for them to create these enormous financial institutions and engage in all kinds of nefarious economic and political activities. The idea that we in the West, we Americans, or the international financial institutions, or some of the big European financial institutions, have clean hands in this matter, I think is simply wrong.

photo of Lilia ShevtsovaLilia Shevtsova

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The author of Yeltsin's Russia: Myths and Reality, she is senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment's Russian and Eurasian Program, and a former deputy director of the Moscow Institute of International Economic and Political Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Sadly, the dominant American view stressed that Yeltsin was a pro-West leader and the basis for reform. They thought the basis for reform was a movement to a free market first, and then Russia would arrive at a liberal democracy. Thus, in effect, the West supported the most primitive, the most simplified mode of reform--market-based reform. I don't remember when the West ever insisted that Yeltsin learn how to compromise, how to speak to, and with, the parliament. No, to the West, the parliament, because it had Communists in it, was a source of evil, the last bastion of all that was reactionary.

What was important to the West were not the rules of the democratic game. They were interested in their partners. It was a purely pragmatic approach, a purely utilitarian approach.

How do you explain that to yourself--that our definition of reform in Russia became totally identified not just with Yeltsin, but with this one political group?

I think it's pretty obvious that the West chose the simplest way which would turn out to be the fastest. To seek support from a group of like- minded people in the Russian establishment, those who look similar to them, who speak wonderful English, use the same (categories), are of the same blood. This group turned out to be Chubias's team. There weren't many economists who spoke in a Western tongue and behaved as real Western people. So it is absolutely natural that the Western governments, having found their "agents," decided to work through them.

They lost sight of one very important factor, however, that the group who was similar to them in spirit and mentality was very small and didn't have political support in the society.; And this was the first mistake--to support people without political influence, those who would be thought of as foreigners.

Second, when you support someone, you cross a line and get too close. This buddy-buddy relationship between Western political teams and the team of young Russian reformers was also a mistake, because this familiarity robbed the young reformers of their identity, and caused them to be viewed by the people as conduits of Western influence. The West became responsible for their mistakes.


I think the West surrendered its own identity and in effect gave up the rules of its own game when it worked with Russia. For some reason, when it worked in Poland and Hungary, the West supported parliaments, referendums, and all the democratic institutions. But in Russia, they accepted a czar. The reforms could be carried out in a very demanding way, with the help of the oligarchs. It's what I call a political double standard. Essentially, the entire policy of the West was based on a lack of belief that the Russian people would understand and accept liberal democracy as its own. That's why it decided to hit it over the head, to put a czar above the people, and to work through a very small group of technocrats.

photo of Donald JensenDonald Jensen

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He was Second Secretary at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow (1993-1995).
How much of what has gone wrong in the last decade can be laid at the feet of United States policy?

That's very hard in the Russian context. I guess I agree with secretary Madeleine Albright's cliche that the future of Russia is ultimately for Russians to decide. I think, however, there's no question that we were a factor in making it more difficult and making the lives of ordinary Russians more traumatic.

I think there's no question that's the fact. How much, I can't say. Ultimately, it is their own problem and ultimately they've had a leadership that has been not very good at addressing its needs. But certainly we have been a factor--usually never by intent, often by ignorance.

photo of thomas grahamthomas graham

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He was Chief Political Analyst at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from 1994-1997.
. . .we eroded support for the democratic processes. We created the impression that the United States itself was not particularly concerned about the democratic development of Russia-- that what was important was this economic side. Given the way the economic side developed--with privatization, high-level corruption, cronyism and so forth--many Russians drew the conclusion over time that this was, indeed, the intended result of American policy.


Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, you will remember the very famous "end of history" article, which at that time did reflect the views of a large segment of the American political-business establishment [that] there really was no alternative to democratic politics and market economies, and that once you removed the obstacles that happened to the Soviet Union, this would develop naturally.

So there never really was any doubt about the direction in which we were urging Russia to go, and I think the view was, again, one of intellectual arrogance, both here and in Russia, that if people didn't understand this, it was because of a certain amount of ignorance, not because they have legitimate concerns. And that what we needed to do was push forward on reform as rapidly as possible because that would lead to the types of benefits that would ultimately persuade these people of the correctness of the policy.

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