Washington, D.C., November 2, 2020 – Declassified highest-level transcripts and diplomatic cables provide new granular detail on the rise to power of Russian President Vladimir Putin 20 years ago, much of it in his own words (as captured by American notetakers) and those of his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, according to the documentary publication today by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
The documents demonstrate how American rhetoric about the importance of elections as the essential means for transfer of power gradually subsided during the fall of 1999 into a least-worst-case acceptance of Yeltsin’s unconventional maneuvers for continuity that anointed Putin as his successor and protector.
The documents include Russian President Yeltsin’s telephone explanation to U.S. president Bill Clinton in September 1999 (see Document 1) about the unexpected pick of the previously obscure Putin as prime minister and potential successor, “a solid man who is kept well abreast of various subjects under his purview” such as the intelligence services and the Kremlin security council.
Yeltsin had fired four prime ministers in the previous 17 months, a process he described in his memoirs as “Prime Ministerial Poker,” so the test for Putin after his August 1999 selection was whether he would catch on with the public enough to defend Yeltsin from his critics in the parliamentary elections in December 1999, and then ascend to the presidency, presumably through the presidential elections scheduled for July 2000.
Instead, Putin became acting president when Yeltsin resigned unexpectedly on New Year’s Eve 1999. The documents published today include the transcripts of Clinton’s call to Yeltsin that evening, and to the new president Putin the next morning. Yeltsin explains to Clinton in their phone call (see Document 8) “now I’ve given him [Putin] three months, three months according to the constitution, to work as [acting] president, and people will get used to him for these three months. I am sure that he will be elected….”
By resigning, Yeltsin had effectively short-circuited the presidential elections scheduled for July 2000 because the constitution required elections within 90 days if there was an acting president, who now enjoyed the advantages of incumbency.
Declassified State Department cables obtained through a National Security Archive lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act help explain how Yeltsin could be so sure of Putin’s future electoral success. U.S. ambassador to Moscow James Collins reported back (see Document 4) that Yeltsin’s confidant (and future son-in-law), Valentin Yumashev, had bragged about the administration’s personnel across the country working for the Putin-supported “Unity” bloc during the December parliamentary elections: “Furthermore [emergencies minister Sergei] Shoigou can use his staff located in every region to assist his bloc’s electoral efforts – of course, in full compliance with Russian law, Yumashev quickly added.”
Most important was Putin’s growing popularity as the result of his tough reaction in September 1999 to the Chechen invasion of Dagestan and the terrorist apartment bombings in Moscow. President Clinton remarked at his second meeting with Prime Minister Putin (at Oslo in November, see Document 5) that the Russian military crackdown on Chechnya was “playing well for you at home, but not internationally” because of the losses of civilian lives. According to Matthew Evangelista, “Putin’s personal approval rating soared, from 35 percent when Yeltsin appointed him in August to 65 percent in October, as he escalated the war.”
Putin’s deployment of his Chechnya-related popularity, together with his announced increases in pensions made possible by higher oil prices, combined to undercut the presumed frontrunners in the Duma elections on December 19. Foreign observers had assumed that former Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov, a nationalist Yeltsin critic and veteran Soviet-era diplomat, would be the leading candidate in the presidential elections scheduled for July 2000; but Yeltsin aides like Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told their American partners (see Document 3) Primakov did not have much of a political future.
Ultimately, the anti-Yeltsin coalition amassed by Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov drew only 12 per cent of the vote for parliament in December, while the “Unity” coalition endorsed by Putin and organized by Shoigu won twice as much. Through cooperation with the Communists (still the largest single party), Putin was even able to achieve a working majority in the Duma, which Yeltsin never had. This electoral success likely provided the final incentive for Yeltsin to decide on his New Year’s Eve resignation.
In Clinton’s first face-to-face with Prime Minister Putin (see Document 2), during the September Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in New Zealand, the American leader does not foresee the Yeltsin resignation gambit, and instead emphasizes the ballot box and elections as the key: “These elections and how they’re conducted are extremely important. I’ve told Boris this. He’s the first elected leader of Russia, but also will be the first leader to peacefully transfer power through an election. That’s a great thing. It’s a great thing for a country. You’ve never done it before. I know it won’t be the easiest thing. But it’s extremely important.”
Clinton at Auckland gives Putin a lecture on elections and gets a lesson in return. Clinton tells him, “One thing that you have going for you is that you can try to show that there is no credible alternative to the path that you’re on. If the opposition doesn’t have a credible set of proposals, that will help you.” Putin demurs: “Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Russia does not have an established political system. People don’t read programs. They look at the faces of the leaders, regardless of what party they belong to, regardless of whether they have a program or not.”
In Clinton’s last presidential meeting with Yeltsin, however, (see Document 6) the American’s emphasis on elections is practically absent. The White House memcon of the Istanbul session from November 19, 1999 shows Yeltsin veering wildly from bluster (“just give Europe to Russia”) to embrace (“I’ve not yet ceased to believe in you”) and ends with Clinton asking, “Who will win the election?” Yeltsin responds, “Putin, of course. He will be the successor to Boris Yeltsin.” Clinton does not reiterate the importance of elections.
The State Department’s summary of the conversation, in stark contrast (see Document 7), claims that Clinton raised the issue of elections as “key to Russia’s transformation” and got a commitment from Yeltsin for the scheduled presidential elections. No such language is in the memcon.
By the time Putin becomes acting president, Clinton’s emphasis on elections subsides into more general appreciation of a peaceful transition. In Clinton’s congratulatory phone call to Putin on the latter’s first day as acting president (see Document 9), the American leader simply remarks that Yeltsin’s resignation and Putin’s response “are very encouraging for the future of Russian democracy.” And when Putin wins the March 2000 presidential elections in the first round, without a runoff, Clinton’s phone call of congratulations (see Document 10) calls the moment “a really historic milestone for Russia.”
It is worth noting that memcons and telcons like these may not exist for more recent head-of-state conversations. President Trump reportedly did not allow the creation of memcons for at least five of his conversations with Putin between 2017 and 2020. The National Security Archive, together with the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations and the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, is currently in federal court seeking to enforce the records laws against the White House and the State Department on this issue.