Posts tagged ‘william dunkerley’

11 October 2009

The Yeltsin Scandal

Who’s ruining Russian democracy? Stephen F. Cohen has long been arguing that Gorbachev was the real democrat and it all went to anti-democratic hell with Yeltsin, long before Putin turned up, or Medvedev followed.

A recent interesting media analysis by William Dunkerley, media business analyst and consultant, points to a similar argument. The media scandal, says Dunkerley is “the Western press’ inexplicably lenient treatment of the Yeltsin presidency, especially in comparison to his successors”. Some extracts:

[The Yeltsin Scandal begins with a drunken Boris Yeltsin hailing a cab in his underwear across from the White House in Washington. But that’s just the beginning. This story includes murder, unthinkable acts of military aggression, and journalistic malfeasance. At its heart, it’s really a story about the media and how they have bungled the coverage of Yeltsin and his successors. You’ll never look at media reportage of Russia in the same way!]

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.

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.

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