Donald Trump is America’s Boris Yeltsin. What The Two Presidents Have In Common


Nikolay Pakhomov — Rethinking Russia expert

When US President Trump on August 2 signed a bill that reinforces and expands to some extent sanctions on Moscow, the anti-Russian campaign emerged somewhat divorced from real policy-making. The bill has clarified the Congress position on the matter, with the ongoing investigation into Trump’s and his acolytes’ alleged ties with Russia shifting public attention to the legal aspect. While lambasting Trump, some intellectuals seek to establish nominal correlations between the US president and Russia and to draw historical parallels between the two countries. This clearly creative approach on the part of experts and pundits produces remarkable results.

Donald Trump’s stunning electoral victory, a 2016 hot talking point, was interpreted differently. My good friend Andrei Korobkov, a Russian-born political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University, managed to stand out from the rest. Shortly after the presidential contest, he compared Trump’s and Yeltsin’s political careers to validly conclude that both had ridden high on the anti-establishment sentiments sweeping the two nations, which were weary of the political status-quo. Korobkov describes the two leaders as establishment figures who, however, turned against and prevailed over the ruling elite. Even though his article, comprising some other interesting remarks, was published in Russian, it caught well-deserved interest both at home and abroad.

Nevertheless, President Trump and his administration have been so much embroiled in scandals of all kinds that it has taken a little more than six months for Korobkov’s conclusions to be forgotten. That is why, it is noteworthy that the consciousness of America’s establishment which is worried about Trump and Russia, has reproduced the idea of resemblance between the forty-fifth US president and the first Russian head of state.

In early August, Eugene Rumer, Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote an article for Politico, the most influential website exclusively popular among Washington insiders, to compare the two administrations, with few positive outcomes for Trump. Actually, Rumer knows the ropes. Before joining Carnegie, he served as the national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the US National Intelligence Council. Earlier, he worked for the State Department. Besides, Rumer has dealt with some most consequential think tanks and universities in the United States. His article, which has drawn a meaningful response from US experts on Russia, explains to the Politico audience that Trump’s presidency is not as an unprecedented case as Americans believe. Even though the country has not seen Yeltsin-like policymakers, Rumer thinks that parallels with the first Russian president are obvious.

Let us forget for a short while that by comparing and contrasting Yeltsin and Trump, Rumer vied with the latter’s detractors. Equally notable is the fact that by negatively describing Yeltsin’s Russia, the director of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program seems to have become oblivious to the first president’s firm commitment to the US. In his retrospective analysis of the 1990s, Rumer hardly minces words when elaborating on the dysfunctional administration and Duma, Yeltsin’s inability to perform his duties, corruption, potent oligarchs, the embattled government and judiciary, and the crippled economy. The author even reminds us of the Western media’s statement that “Russia is finished”.

However, Washington’s official position shaped by the foreign policy establishment, which included Rumer’s colleagues, avoided such disparaging remarks about the Yeltsin administration. It is a real pity that the article ignored altogether the disregard of US officials for the ally’s problems. All the more so as Rumer’s colleagues, even those who agree with the expert’s assessments, are dragging their heels and refrain from expressing their views on US-Russian relations in the late twentieth century…

Ultimately, Eugene Rumer seems to have come close to describing the looming transformation of Trump’s America into Yeltsin’s Russia. The first Russian president enjoyed the support of the United States, because, as Washington saw it, under him the country took steps in the right direction. Either Washington was then entirely in the wrong, or the direction deemed beneficial by America turned out to be ruinous for Russia. This ambiguity prevents Rumer from convincing his readers, especially the Russian audience, that his arguments have been well thought-over. Rather, the analyst seems to have joined the anti-Trump campaign, the comparison with Yeltsin being an original attack against the president. This impression is reinforced by a Wall Street Journal article written by Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment, a couple of days after the publication in Politico. The two well-reputed and influential American experts depict Russia’s alarmingly successful global expansion along with moderate criticism of Trump’s foreign policy…

Thus, I would rather support the former of the two approaches to contrasting Yeltsin and Trump. I see them as politicians who have voiced their voters’ anger rather than ineffective presidents whose rule is damaging for the country. My attitude has little to do with the friendly relations I have fostered with the pundit. Although given the size of the analytical article a comparison can hardly be accurate, complete and well grounded, Korobkov has tried to analyze facts to account for Trump’s astounding success at last year’s elections. Rumer’s approach points to a political bias.

In any case, both approaches can be used to evaluate the work of the American president. Over just a couple of years, observers have collected numerous facts about the Trump phenomenon. The comparison of the forty-fifth US president with the first Russian president has evolved into a curious comprehensive approach to understanding Trump, which already has some advocates and supporters. The facts are bound to become more numerous in the near future. It will clarify many things. It will, for instance, answer the following questions. In what way is Trump like Yeltsin? Will the president’s family become firmly entrenched in power to be central to political decision-making? Will the White House learn to exploit presidential decrees as a substitute for laws? Will separate states fly the banner of federalism and follow their own policy rather than Washington’s instructions? Will the most affluent American families exercise more control over the political system? Will numerous investigators and prosecutors file corruption charges against Trump or his associates or charge them with other crimes? And, most importantly, will Trump’s supporters back him in 2020 despite new hardships and unfulfilled promises?

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