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Post-soviet Russia Caught in Between Two Leadership Styles: Yeltsin Versus Putin

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Boris Yeltsin, the first democratically elected president of post-Soviet Russia in 1990,strove to serve Russia’s national interestsbyenforcing his pro-Western ideas. On the other hand, Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin’s successor in 2000,reinforced traditional ideas and was much more passionate about the current situation in Russian society and its domesticissues. In Yeltsin’s address to the United States Congress in 1992, he revealed his intentions for economic and political reforms and his expectancy for Russia to transition “from a socialist dictatorship to a capitalist democratic regime.” In Putin’s Annual Address to Russia’s Federal Assembly on May 10, 2006, he focused on “areas that directly determine the quality of life” of the Russian people. In theiraddresses, it was evident that Yeltsin and Putin’s policies were comparable with regard to developing democracy and a civil society, but they also differed in important aspects of economic reforms and foreign policy.

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Boris Yeltsin highlightedthe importance of strengthening the partnership between Russiaand the United States and its allies. This partnership would“help integrate Russia into the Western world and… guarantee a flow of Western aid that would help Russia rebuild.” This “mutually advantageous cooperation” could lead to efficient solutions to Russia’s problems and even provide new jobs to both the people of Russia and the United States. Yeltsin expressed a great deal of gratitude towards President Bush and the American people for their unwavering support of Russia.

According to Yeltsin, Russian relations with the U.S. and the establishment of democracy could also restore the rule of law, guarantee domestic, social, and political stability, and provide maintenance of civil peace. Liberty—an inherent characteristic of democracy—would encourage freedom and a market economy. But liberty certainly “does not offer instant prosperity or happiness and wealth to everyone. This is something that politicians in particular must keep in mind.” Yeltsin believed that achievingdesired resultstookeffort in everyday action. However, he called to mind that Russia’spredecessors have used their power for corruption, thereby depleting hopes forsecond chances and “[we] have no right to fail.” Waiting any longer to try and establish democracy would cause delays in the progress of Russian society. Additionally, Yeltsin insisted that there was a collective responsibility, “not only toward the people of Russia, but also towards the citizens of America and of the entire world. Today the freedom of America is being upheld in Russia.” Realizing reforms were a promising step toward Russia’s improvement, and the United States would also share Russia’s successes and failures; thus, “the reforms must succeed.”

Nonetheless, the Russian people wereaware of the weakness of their state in comparison to the superpower status enjoyed by the Soviet Union at the height of its power. Yeltsin acknowledged the vulnerability of Russian national identity and articulated a sense of national purpose in his foreign and economic reforms.He wanted to bring Russia’s legal practice up to world standards and join the world community in its prestige, but highlighted the value of preserving and strengthening Russia’s identity, culture, and moral standards. He asserted that“It is the tradition of the Russian people to repay kindness with kindness. This is the bedrock of the Russian lifestyle, the underlying truth revealed by the great Russian culture.” He invitednew Russia toopenly extend a hand of friendship to the people of America. By joining this partnership, Russia would promote“the quest for freedom and justice in the 21st century.”

Unfortunately, however, at the end of Yeltsin’s rule, democracy had become of little importance for the majority ofRussians, and Vladimir Putin was determined to restore the strong state that Russia always had. An issue that Putin addressed was the Russian people’s“low levels of public trust in some of the institutions of state power and in big business.” The unprecedented personal enrichment of the few at the expense of citizensfueled this distrust. Putin supported Russian business, but stressed that the state would not ignore attempts by businesses to gain illegal profit by creating special relations with each other; this was corruption. The businesses, as well as civil servants, must avoid corruption by acknowledging their social responsibility to the well-being and prosperity of the Russian people. Putin repeated in his addressU.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s notion that, “toes of some people are being stepped on and are going to be stepped on.” Putin, a man who was unafraid of doing what he set out to do, refused to tolerate those who used their power to take advantage of citizens for their own personal gain. He seemed to fit Yeltsin’s description of an ideal politician in his awareness that intentions must be translated into everyday actions. Putin thought it was a priority “to ensure that this principle is reflected in deed and not just in word.” Putin’s ways of solving domestic issues weresomewhat similar to Yeltsin’s; he triedensuring citizens’ rights and liberties, organizing the state itself effectively, and developing democracy (although not a Western-style democracy) and civil society.

Like Yeltsin, Putin also thought that Russia needed economic growth. However, Putin viewed Russia’s extreme demographic problem, or as he described it, “the issue of ‘conserving the people’” as a major threat to economic reform, as it would mean nothing unless the country turned its attention to such basic things as “values of love and care for family and home.” Putin acknowledged that love, family, and progress wereinevitably linked. He even reasserted a sense of nationality and instilledshame in the Russian people when stated, “It seems to me that foreigners are adopting more of our children than we ourselves are.” He spelled out the needed policies for reversing Russia’s demographic collapse and increasing the birth rate by supplying more monthly cash supplements (rubles) that families should have upon the birth of a second or third child.However, Putin also proposed lowering the death rate and further constituted Russia’s demographic problem to the significant amount of young men who“suffer from chronic diseases and have problems with drinking, smoking.” Moreover, combating the deterioration of young men required patriotic education, which influenced “physical and patriotic development.” Putin realized that Russia needed stronger national security, and these men had the potential to serve and ensure their country’s safety.

Putin was conscious that Russia’s key threats to its safety came from terrorist activities and those nations falling behind in economic development. The emergence of new transnational threats to the United States and Western interests, especially terrorism emerging from Afghanistan and the Middle East, shifted international priorities. Yeltsin proudly stood by disarmament during his presidency and eliminated the “heavy SS-18 missiles targeted on the United States of America,” but Putin decided that “disarmament issues are all but off the international agenda… it is too early to speak of an end to the arm’s race.” Putin advised Russians to be keen of their local conflicts in the world today and compared the United States’ defense budget to Russia’s, which was “25 times bigger.” This statistic supported Putin’s argument that Russia’s armed forces must be modernized in order to counter threats and “weapons of mass destruction,” (a reference to Putin’s suspicion of NATO). Although he thoughtthat Russia and the United States should be on good terms, he indicated, “We see, after all, that the wolf knows what to eat.” Putin alluded to the U.S. as “the wolf” andbelieved thatRussia must know its place in the world to “ensure [its] security in a situation of disparitywith the other leading powers.” It was apparent that Putin was not nearly as concerned with having a strong relationship with the U.S. as much as Yeltsin was.

Boris Yeltsin shattered the previous state and tried to erect, although without a real concrete plan, a new Russia. At the end of his presidency,he confessed that he was “naïve” and underestimated the extent of Russia’s problems. As a result, Vladimir Putin became a kind of stabilizer by trying to strengthen Russia’s state and bring social order. He seemed confident in his endeavors and proudly stated that“Without question we realize the full scale of the work at hand.” Yeltsin and Putin both expressed their desire to improve Russian civilization in their addresses, but perhaps their differences in opinions on how to successfully achieve this were made even more prevalent.

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