When Bill Clinton Put His Thumb on the Scale for Yeltsin: “Boris? Good Enough!”

In Democracy, Human rights, Justice on January 20, 2017 at 10:29 am

By Nick Alexandrov


The veterinarian lives in a “region of rolling green hills, broad horizons and abysmal poverty,” where he chain-smokes “the cheapest brand of cigarettes,” unfiltered. His wife, a librarian by training, “works on a nearby cattle ranch” sometimes. “The Government does not care for simple people,” she laments. That’s why she backs the candidate who, if elected, might not herald a “return exactly to old times”—though “maybe something similar.” This is the north Caucasus, late spring, 1996, in Michael R. Gordon’s New York Times depiction.

In Russia’s presidential race that year, incumbent and eventual victor Boris Yeltsin “was floundering. Five candidates, led by Communist Gennadi Zyuganov”—the man the Caucasus couple liked—“were ahead of Yeltsin in some polls,” Andrew Felkay notes in Yeltsin’s Russia and the West. “The president was favored by only 6 percent of the electorate and was ‘trusted’ as a competent leader by an even smaller proportion,” he adds. “In the U.S.,” consultant Richard Dresner remarked, “you’d advise a pol with those kinds of numbers to get another occupation.”

Dresner was one of the “American ‘image-makers’” Yeltsin brought in “to help with the campaign.” The strategists got a quarter million dollars for four months’ work, “an unlimited budget for polling, focus groups and other research,” Felkay explains. Dresner had also been “gubernatorial campaign consultant to Bill Clinton,” but “denied any connections between the Russian campaign and the White House” despite this and other links, Gerald Sussman pointed out in Monthly Review (December 2006). “For Clinton,” regardless, “what mattered most was keeping Yeltsin in power,” writes Nicolas Bouchet in Democracy Promotion as US Foreign Policy.

“Indeed the West supported Yeltsin much more energetically in those elections than either the Russian political class or the public,” Lilia Shevtsova affirms in Lonely Power, stressing that Clinton “kept doing everything in his power to support Yeltsin.” “Under pressure from the White House,” she continues, “the IMF decided in 1996…to loan Russia $10.2 billion”—a move “designed to bolster Yeltsin’s chances,” Shevtsova and Angela Stent observed in Foreign Policy (Summer 1996). Michael Gordon concurred in the New York Times, calling the sum “a major election-year boost” for Yeltsin. And Boris Fyodorov, Russia’s finance minister from 1993-1994, allegedly “declared that no economic argument could be found to justify” the money, unless Washington “wanted to buy Yeltsin’s re-election.” So reported U.S. Lt. Gen William E. Odom, who further testified before the House Committee on International Relations that the loan “did…help buy” Yeltsin’s victory.

“At Clinton’s behest,” moreover, “the G8 held a summit on security issues in Moscow in early 1996,” Shevtsova reminds us. This was “not a regularly scheduled” meeting, but “was transparently a gambit to support Yeltsin’s campaign.” To the New York Times it appeared “primarily designed to burnish Boris Yeltsin’s prestige,” and Yeltsin himself called it “an inestimable moral support.”

So while Zyuganov “went into the campaign as the heavy favorite in virtually every poll;” “had a strong grassroots organization behind him;” and “was widely believed to be the favored candidate” two months before the vote, in the end his party’s “door-to-door campaign was obliterated by the heavily researched, well-financed, media-saturating, modern campaign waged by the Yeltsin team,” Sarah E. Mendelson summarized in International Security (Spring 2001). The European Institute for the Media determined this “media-saturating” facet of Yeltsin’s operation “marred the fairness of the democratic process,” in part because “the media received and accepted specific instructions on how to cover the campaign.”

And there were other problems. “The bias on the national television channels (a breach of the regulations), the pressure on editors and media outlets, the use of the administrative and financial levers”—all created a climate in which “voters were given less information of a professional and objective nature” than they’d received earlier that decade, just after the USSR’s collapse.

The 1996 contest, Shevtsova concludes, “marked the beginning of democracy’s discrediting in the eyes of Russian public opinion,” largely because Washington and its allies did “everything in [their] power to back their protégés in the Kremlin at the expense of free and fair elections.” The fact that “the United States pushed an electoral procedure in which it believed the only acceptable outcome had to be Yeltsin” made the event, as Peter J. Stavrakis put it to the House Committee on International Relations, “deeply disturbing to many Russians who saw in the electoral process much of the sham aspects that were present in the Soviet era.”

But U.S. goals went beyond warping Russian democracy. Washington’s “whole policy was…aimed,” at the time, “at the domestic transformation of Russia, both politically and economically,” Thomas Graham, Chief Political Analyst at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from 1994–1997, explained. “The U.S. assistance program was driven by the desire to support reformers whose agenda was consistent with U.S. objectives,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) elaborated. Mendelson described the “virtual army of non- governmental organizations (NGOs) from the United States” swarming Russia in the early 1990s. “From fiscal year 1990 through December 31, 1994,” the GAO reported, the U.S. government threw $3.5 billion at Russian overhaul efforts, as “23 departments and independent agencies implemented 215 programs in the [former Soviet Union].”

Julie Nelson and Irina Y. Kuzes, in Radical Reform in Yeltsin’s Russia, break down the funding. For example, “the Washington, D.C., Sawyer/Miller Group received $7 million to develop a television advertising campaign to promote privatization,” and “an Arlington, Virginia, consulting firm, Haglar Bailly, received a $20 million contract to ‘help privatize Russian utilities and encourage them to install U.S.-made equipment[.]’”

Or consider the Harvard Institute for International Development (HIID). It was Washington’s “operator for its program of aid for economic reform and privatization in Russia,” Shevtsova writes, with budgets of “$57.7 million for Russian economic reform and $20 million for legal reform.” HIID even “drafted many of the Kremlin decrees” pushing for privatization, according to Janine Wedel (Collision and Collusion). In 2000, Shevtsova continues, “a U.S. court found that economics professor and HIID adviser Andrei Schleifer and his assistant Jonathan Hay ‘used their position and substantial influence on Russian officials… to achieve their own financial interests and the interests of their spouses.’” In other words, “they enriched themselves exactly as their Russian colleagues were doing.”

With its vast corruption and sham elections, Yeltsin’s Russia had “no real democracy,” Dimitri K. Simes, President of the Center for the National Interest, concluded. He emphasized that, “because of the Clinton Administration’s embrace of the undemocratic Yeltsin regime and perceived U.S. support for radical and even brutal economic reforms of the 1990s that were rejected by the vast majority of the Russian people, the Russian public is not inclined to accept U.S. guidance on democracy today.” No wonder.

“In the early 1990s, Russia’s economic system collapsed,” David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu explain in The Body Economic. Unemployment “jumped to 22 percent by 1998,” while “one-quarter of the population were living in poverty” in 1995, as “men began to die at an increasing rate.” Stuckler and Basu blame austerity measures, mass privatization—the Russian metamorphosis U.S. power promoted. “Economic genocide,” Yeltsin’s vice president charged. How all this compares to claims [that] Russian hacking undermined the U.S. election, I leave for the reader to decide.

Nicholas Alexandrov lives in Washington, DC.


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