The Yeltsin Era: A Historic Blip in the Continuum of the Russian Empire?

Piroska Nagy-Mohacsi, London School of Economics
Mario I. Blejer, LSE

The Russian Empire has been in place in varying forms and duration since at least the 16th century, and the Soviet Union was its variant. Based on our unique access as economists to direct sources and high level policy makers in various parts of the former Soviet Union, we argue that Boris Yeltsin’s presidency to date is the only historic period when Russia’s policies were non-imperialist. Our paper investigates the fortuitous combination of several factors that allowed the fast and bloodless dissolution of the Soviet empire into 15 nations: (i) the unintended consequences of Gorbachev’s reforms that accelerated the republics’ secession; (ii) Yeltsin’s canny use of nationalism and populism to undermine the Union structure, and aligning Russia’s incentives with those of the secessionist republics in the process. This was a historically unusual configuration in an empire where both the “periphery” republics and the core of the empire, Russia, found themselves on the same side of the political barricade, aiming to dismantle the Soviet imperial political structure; and (iii) the culturally deep-rooted “sitting on the fence” attitude of the mighty Soviet military with regards to domestic policies. Yeltsin’s government, led by reform architect Yegor Gaidar, was also distinctively non-imperial and secured cementing the independence of the former Soviet republics. Vladimir Putin’s ascent to power in 2000 in the Russian Federation brought back the rebuilding of the empire as a main political objective.

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 Presented in Session 127. European Politics