President Trump’s Boris Yeltsin Moment

Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin

(Bloomberg – bloomberg.com – Leonid Bershidsky – February 15, 2017)

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

President Donald Trump is irritated about the media furor surrounding the departure of his national security adviser. “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!” he tweeted on Wednesday. Of course it’s un-American — it’s Russian, 1990s-style.

Immediately after Trump’s victory, Andrei Korobkov, a Russian-born political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University, published a lengthy article (an English translation can be found here http://watchingamerica.com/WA/2016/11/28/the-american-yeltsin/) discussing the resemblance between Trump and Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first president. Korobkov described both men as establishment figures who turned against the ruling elite while managing to sell this turnaround to voters. Both protested against the specific forms of political correctness that dominated their countries’ public discourse. In both cases, the establishment fought back angrily, Korobkov wrote:

“During the election, the American elites acted in a manner that is reminiscent of the actions of the communist nomenklatura in 1987-1991. This led to what could be called the ‘Yeltsin effect’: The campaign against Trump was so aggressive and shameless that it riled up a significant portion of the electorate. In the USSR, too, a big percentage of the population voted not so much for Yeltsin and his concrete proposals, as against the unscrupulous game of the communist nomenklatura, its control over various aspects of life, including media, and, also as an act of protest against the corruption of the elites, both material and moral.”

The breakup of the Soviet Union put Yeltsin at the top of a government pyramid he had never quite commanded during Soviet times. The “deep state” — the security and intelligence apparatus in particular, but also the entrenched bureaucracies of the huge ministries — were used to running, and attempting to plan, every aspect of the country’s life. Yeltsin appointed his people to the top jobs, but the appointees often failed to conjure the kind of mastery of these complex hierarchies required to overhaul them. In five years as foreign minister, young, pro-Western Andrei Kozyrev made little progress towards remaking the Soviet foreign relations machine, and the diplomatic service heaved a sigh of relief when a strong traditionalist, Yevgeni Primakov, took Kozyrev’s place in 1996.

Yeltsin fought the “deep state” by liberalizing the economy so that the old bureaucracy had less to regulate, and he constantly kept the security services on their toes by merging and unmerging various agencies. During his first term in power, the former KGB turned into a Security Ministry (which also included the Interior Ministry, the KGB’s rival service in many areas), then into the Federal Counterintelligence Service, then into the Federal Security Service (known by the Russian acronym FSB). Even after acquiring the current name, the service underwent constant reorganizations, and Yeltsin kept some integral parts of the KGB, such as technical intelligence and Kremlin security, separate. Yeltsin kept these institutions off balance, knowing they could turn into a dangerous center of power that could topple him with the help of his political rivals — people to whom the Soviet Union’s demise was a tragedy.

They were always around, trying to impeach Yeltsin first in 1993 and then in 1999. During the second attempt, Yeltsin was accused, among other things, of weakening Russia and aiding its geopolitical adversaries. A parliamentary majority voted to impeach on every count, but a qualified majority necessary to throw Yeltsin out of the Kremlin wasn’t reached.

Yeltsin’s Kremlin was notoriously leaky. The first Russian leader could never find enough people who were both loyal and honest, and they always squabbled among themselves. The warring factions were a journalist’s bonanza. Unlike in Trump’s Washington, administration officials would sometimes even scorn anonymity to speak out against one Yeltsin move or another. In 1998, about 18 months before Yeltsin abruptly resigned, Kremlin employees were openly saying he might be too sick to govern and picking sides in the next election.

With Trump today, Americans are seeing many of the same signs: A bureaucracy muttering rebelliously, openly hostile intelligence services, political appointees without a network or even a core of ideological backers in their departments, warring factions among presidential staffers, the ghost of impeachment proceedings and leaks, leaks, leaks.

Yeltsin was far less thin-skinned than Trump: He respected the media, never moved against them and did little to shut up leakers. But then, also unlike Trump, he drank to mute the pain of governing, and he didn’t have a Twitter account. Besides, it was in Yeltsin’s power to shake up the intelligence services and keep them weak — but Trump can only fume and keep denying that he intends to hand the U.S. to Putin on a platter or even lift sanctions imposed on Russia for annexing Crimea.

Trump’s ill-wishers in the Washington bureaucracy have all the tools the entrenched Soviet bureaucracy had against Yeltsin. Trump doesn’t even have Yeltsin’s power over them, though I’m sure he would like Putin’s. Under the current Russian president, neither the Kremlin nor the intelligence services leak anything unless he’s OK with it.

Yeltsin was ultimately unsuccessful. He didn’t serve out his second term, and Putin rolled back most of his liberal reforms. Trump’s chances aren’t even as good as Yeltsin’s. If he fails, some Putin allies in Moscow — if not the dictator himself — may rue a wasted opportunity. But it’ll be a Putin moment — the revanche of a government machine over a colorful individual. Very un-American; very Russian.

Article ©2017 Bloomberg L.P. All Rights Reserved. Article also appeared at bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-02-15/president-trump-s-boris-yeltsin-moment