If I could travel in time

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, but tottering on the brink. Yeltsin was the only significant political figure elected in a democratic election. He was drinking, but there was no public evidence that it was to excess, and the heart operation was in the future.

To remind you of the sequence of events.

Yeltsin, a Siberian, had been brought in by Gorbachev to run the Moscow Communist Party. He was a thoroughgoing backer of Gorbachev's reforms, 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 Congress of People's Deputies (CPD) of Russia, not the Soviet Union. He gained a seat on its governing body, the Supreme Soviet. The following year, as the constitution of the Soviet Union began to unravel, the CPD needed a strong leader to negotiate with Gorbachev for greater Russian autonomy. It chose Yeltsin as its president.

In June 1991 Russia, for the first time in its history, held a truly democratic and contested election. Although there had been contests in 1989, they had been between different Communist Party candidates and occasional independents. All other parties had still been banned. Yeltsin defeated Gorbachev's preferred candidate with 57% of the vote.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union continued apace. 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. Like the conspirators against Caesar, who discussed arresting Mark Antony and decided against, the four must have considered moving against Yeltsin. They decided not to, and 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 programme of economic reforms, he was frustrated at every level by the Congress of People's Deputies and the Supreme Soviet. They almost impeached him when he decided to opt for radical 'shock therapy' reform. 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 a huge exaggeration, as the Soviet era production figures were pure 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 the CPD and the Supreme Soviet from office. He called new elections. Unfortunately, these were won by the ultra-nationalist and - in the Soviet sense - conservative party, the Liberal Democrats.

His move was of doubtful legality, but he got away with it. But the election result left him worse off than before. Previously he had been opposed by an illegitimate Soviet-era parliament. Now he was opposed by an elected parliament, wish a fresher mandate than his.

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 the CPD 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.

This article is the second time I have drawn an analogy between Yeltsin and Mark Antony see here for the first.

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