If I could travel in time

Dateline: 27 April 2007

It would be to August 1991. I would want a word in the ear of one of the century's most important politicians.

Boris Yeltsin was at the height of his powers, both politically and personally. The Soviet Union was still intact, just. Yeltsin was its only elected politician. He was drinking, not to excess, and the heart operation was in the future.

Yeltsin, a Siberian, had been brought in by Gorbachev to run the Moscow Communist Party. He was a thoroughgoing backer of reform, and became a lightning rod for criticism of Gorbachev. So Gorbachev dismissed him, but he did not disappear. Instead, in 1989, he was elected to the Russia’s Congress of People's Deputies. He gained a seat on its governing body, the Supreme Soviet. The following year, as the constitution of the Soviet Union began to unravel, Congress needed a strong leader to negotiate for Russian autonomy. It chose Yeltsin as its president.

In June 1991 Russia held its first democratic and contested election. In 1989 all non-communist parties had still been banned. Yeltsin defeated Gorbachev's preferred candidate with 57% of the vote.

The day before a new, decentralised, constitution was to be signed, four plotters staged a coup. Gorbachev was arrested.

Then they made their most grievous error. They must have considered moving against Yeltsin, but they decided not to. He faced down the coup. The moment he did so, the Soviet Union was over. All the action had transferred from the Soviet parliament to the Russian parliament. The plotters hoped to avoid some decentralisation of the Soviet Union. Instead they precipitated its end.

But it was then that Yeltsin made the most monumental miscalculation of his career. He suddenly, and quite accidentally, found himself running a country: a permanent member of the UN Security Council. He had been elected to run a province of a country that no longer existed. He was Russia's only elected figure.

In 1992, when he began his program of economic reforms, he was frustrated at every level by the Congress of People's Deputies and the Supreme Soviet. They almost impeached him. Reform of this character is always controversial and created economic dislocation. By some estimates Russian GDP fell by 50% during the 1990s. That is probably an exaggeration, as the Soviet era production figures were fiction, but there is no doubt there was a major economic crisis.

It was now war between the President and the Supreme Soviet. In 1993, Yeltsin assumed special powers and dismissed both congress and the Supreme Soviet. He called new elections. Unfortunately, these were won by the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democrats.

Although he was re-elected, defeating a communist candidate in the run-off, Yeltsin's power base was never as great again as it had been in August 1991.

That's where my time machine comes in.

Boris Nikolaiovich, you are going to have to dismiss congress some time. Do it now, when you are popular. You were democratically elected and they weren't. Just announce that there will be new elections with competing parties.

If Yeltsin had called parliamentary elections in 1991 the reformers would have triumphed, and the whole of subsequent Russian history would have been different.

Quentin Langley is editor of http://www.quentinlangley.net an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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