The Yeltsin Scandal

(Center for Citizen Initiatives, Russia: Other Points of View, October 14, 2009)

By William Dunkerley

A stone drunk Boris Yeltsin stood across from the White House in Washington. He was there in his underwear hailing a taxi. In his stupor, Yeltsin just wanted to go out for a pizza.

That bizarre incident from the 90s made the news recently. The PR blitz for a book by Taylor Branch about the Clinton presidency seems to have propelled the story.

But those Yeltsin antics of inebriation aren't the scandal here. Indeed, the recently-circulated story was not actually news. The whole tale had been told earlier by Strobe Talbott in his book on Clinton presidential diplomacy. It was released in 2002 and garnered media attention back then.

So then what is the "Yeltsin Scandal"? The crux of it is the Western press' inexplicably lenient treatment of the Yeltsin presidency, especially in comparison to his successors.

It's Another Bizarre Story

As a media professional, I've followed with interest the press coverage of the recent Russian presidents: Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev. And, I have to admit that I've found the nature of the coverage itself to be yet another bizarre story, one with mystery and intrigue of its own.

Over the years, Yeltsin has been characterized variously as a hero who brought down communism, as the foremost proponent of Russia's transformation to democracy and a market economy, and as a stalwart of Russia's free press.

Beyond that popular imagery, however, there was a less attractive side. Yeltsin presided over a looting of state assets that created a circle of newly-minted tycoons that helped to protect Yeltsin. In addition, acting against the constitution, Yeltsin dismissed the duly elected parliament. And when the members refused to go, he brought in tanks to shell the parliament building in a confrontation that ultimately claimed approximately 150 lives. Somehow he was able to win reelection in a contest where he held roughly a 5 percent approval rating going into the election season. Ultimately, Yeltsin led the country into a financial collapse near the end of his presidency.

Admiring Boris

Yeltsin is nevertheless used in many media accounts and in political discourse as a standard of accomplishment against which his successors are being compared. Notably, Putin is criticized widely in the media for rolling back the democratic gains of the Yeltsin era, for reversing the course Yeltsin had taken away from Soviet-era autocratic rule, and for clamping down on Russia's free press. Typical headlines include "The Rollback of Democracy in Vladimir Putin's Russia" (Washington Post) and "How Putin Muzzled Russia's Free Press" (Wall Street Journal).

According to my analysis, media accounts seem generally to advance a Yeltsin persona that combines hero, fierce democratic and market reformer, and relatively harmless drunk. President Bill Clinton has been quoted as observing, "We can't ever forget that Yeltsin drunk is better than most of the alternatives sober."

Putin's persona in the press, however, is more that of a suspicious, power-hungry autocrat who will stop at nothing, not even murder. On the PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Senator John McCain once accused Putin's Kremlin of instituting a "state-run kind of Mussolini style government."

A Closer Look at Yeltsin

As a case-in-point, I examined the New York Times coverage of Yeltsin's shelling of the parliament in 1993. That was one of Yeltsin's most egregious acts. The Times ran a story entitled "SHOWDOWN IN MOSCOW: Tactics; Yeltsin Attack Strategy: Bursts Followed by Lulls." Here are some excerpts illustrating how the Times covered the story:

"The assault on the Russian Parliament building today was a textbook example of the decisive application of military power...

"And as the daylong assault went on, it was clear that Mr. Yeltsin's commanders had decided on gradualism...

"The Russian troops were looking for Bolshoi Devyatinsky lane ... where the defiant lawmakers had maintained their headquarters...

"With the outcome of the battle never in doubt, the clear preference of the military was to scare the anti-Yeltsin demonstrators into surrendering and to limit casualties...

"The only question was the number of lives that would be lost. And that was largely left up to the rebels as they were alternately bombarded with shells and appeals to surrender."

Just note how soft this coverage is. I'm not taking sides on whether Yeltsin's actions were appropriate or not. But, the Yeltsin side is characterized as valiant and measured. The other side is characterized as defiant and to blame for its own fate. The story has a factual basis. The president really did launch a tank assault on the parliament. However, the circumstances clearly seem to be spun in a way that tempers that stark reality.

What About Putin?

The flip side of Yeltsin's spun-positive media treatment is the very dark characterizations that are given to Putin. To substantiate that conclusion, I'd like to share with you my investigations into the coverage of two issues: Putin's alleged crackdown on Russia's free press, a frequent media theme, and his alleged culpability in the murder of reputed former spy Alexander Litvinenko.

Actually, the press freedom situation is entirely different from how it has been characterized in the Western press. There never was any free press for Putin to have cracked down on. Right from the start of the Russian Federation, laws were put into place that assured that. They provided that the media could not achieve the financial strength to be free and independent. As a result, the press was thrust into the clutches of politicians and business tycoons who propped up the bankrupt media companies in return for the ability to color the news in their own favor. The media were (and still are for the most part) subjugated, not free. Any reportage that there had been a truly free press was either evidence of misunderstanding or falsification. I detailed all this in an article entitled "Russia's Free Press Hoax." You can find it here.

Media Mythology

The coverage of the Litvinenko story offers another textbook case. In a sense, there are similarities to Yeltsin's battle with parliament. There is irrefutable evidence that both basic events actually happened. The attack on parliament did take place, and Litvinenko was poisoned. Another similarity is that both stories made the top-stories-of-the-year lists for 1993 and 2006, respectively.

But when you get into the who-did-what-to-whom, the two stories start to become dissimilar in character. There was lots of evidence that it was Yeltsin who launched the assault on parliament. With the Litvinenko story, however, there were no journalists who had reliable evidence that Putin was involved. Yet so many stories trumpeted the unsupported allegation that Putin was behind the murder.

In 2007, the organizers of the World Congress of the International Federation of Journalists commissioned me to study the Litvinenko coverage and to report my findings at their meeting. What I found is that most of the popular stories of the time seem to have been based on sheer fabrication. They were all part of a PR blitz cooked up by a disgruntled Russian tycoon. My report to IFJ presents further detail on all this, and can be found here.

The Yeltsin Scandal in Focus

So, now you have a better picture of the Yeltsin scandal. As you can see, it isn't about the then-president of Russia. It is really about the media and how they have covered Yeltsin and his successors. It is a scandal of the professional malfeasance of journalists. They have been caught taking shady PR accounts that should have been scrutinized and exploding them into stories of enormous proportion.

It's not been just the Litvinenko story. There's been the incessant stories of how Russia is using energy as a weapon, how there was a rash of journalist murders under Putin, how Russia started a war with Georgia. None of these appear to be the whole honest truth, either.

The Outcome?

What ever happened to Yeltsin's drunken pizza escapade? According to Bill Clinton, "Yeltsin got his pizza."

As to the real Yeltsin scandal, the shoddy coverage of Yeltsin and his successors? That one is still unfolding. Some journalists are still taking a slipshod approach to reporting. As you read that reportage, keep in mind the "Yeltsin Scandal." Look for factual substantiation of those future reports, positive or negative!