For one of the world’s major powers to interfere systematically in the presidential politics of another country is an act of brazen aggression. Yet it happened. Sitting in a distant capital, political leaders set out to assure that their favored candidate won an election against rivals who scared them. They succeeded. Voters were maneuvered into electing a president who served the interest of the intervening power. This was a well-coordinated, government-sponsored project to subvert the will of voters in another country — a supremely successful piece of political vandalism on a global scale.
The year was 1996. Russia was electing a president to succeed Boris Yeltsin, whose disastrous presidency, marked by the post-Soviet social collapse and a savage war in Chechnya, had brought his approval rating down to the single digits. President Bill Clinton decided that American interests would be best served by finding a way to re-elect Yeltsin despite his deep unpopularity. Yeltsin was ill, chronically alcoholic, and seen in Washington as easy to control. Clinton bonded with him. He was our “Manchurian Candidate.”
“I guess we’ve just got to pull up our socks and back ol’ Boris again,” Clinton told an aide. “I know the Russian people have to pick a president, and I know that means we’ve got to stop short of giving a nominating speech for the guy. But we’ve got to go all the way in helping in every other respect.” Later Clinton was even more categorical: “I want this guy to win so bad it hurts.” With that, the public and private resources of the United States were thrown behind a Russian presidential candidate.
Part of the American plan was public. Clinton began praising Yeltsin as a world-class statesman. He defended Yeltsin’s scorched-earth tactics in Chechnya, comparing him to Abraham Lincoln for his dedication to keeping a nation together. As for Yeltsin’s bombardment of the Russian Parliament in 1993, which cost 187 lives, Clinton insisted that his friend had “bent over backwards” to avoid it. He stopped mentioning his plan to extend NATO toward Russia’s borders, and never uttered a word about the ravaging of Russia’s formerly state-owned economy by kleptocrats connected to Yeltsin. Instead he gave them a spectacular gift.
Four months before the election, Clinton arranged for the International Monetary Fund to give Russia a $10.2 billion injection of cash. Yeltsin used some of it to pay for election-year raises and bonuses, but much quickly disappeared into the foreign bank accounts of Russian oligarchs. The message was clear: Yeltsin knows how to shake the Western money tree. In case anyone missed it, Clinton came to Moscow a few weeks later to celebrate with his Russian partner. Oligarchs flocked to Yeltsin’s side. American diplomats persuaded one of his rivals to drop out of the presidential race in order to improve his chances.
Four American political consultants moved to Moscow to help direct Yeltsin’s campaign. The campaign paid them $250,000 per month for advice on “sophisticated methods of polling, voter contact and campaign organization.” They organized focus groups and designed advertising messages aimed at stoking voters’ fears of civil unrest. When they saw a CNN report from Moscow saying that voters were gravitating toward Yeltsin because they feared unrest, one of the consultants shouted in triumph: “It worked! The whole strategy worked. They’re scared to death!”
Yeltsin won the election with a reported 54 percent of the vote. The count was suspicious and Yeltsin had wildly violated campaign spending limits, but American groups, some funded in part by Washington, rushed to pronounce the election fair. The New York Times called it “a victory for Russia.” In fact, it was the opposite: a victory by a foreign power that wanted to place its candidate in the Russian presidency.
American interference in the 1996 Russian election was hardly secret. On the contrary, the press reveled in our ability to shape the politics of a country we once feared. When Clinton maneuvered the IMF into giving Yeltsin and his cronies $10.2 billion, the Washington Post approved: “Now this is the right way to serve Western interests. . . It’s to use the politically bland but powerful instrument of the International Monetary Fund.” After Yeltsin won, Time put him on the cover—holding an American flag. Its story was headlined, “Yanks to the Rescue: The Secret Story of How American Advisors Helped Yeltsin Win.” The story was later made into a movie called “Spinning Boris.”
This was the first direct interference in a presidential election in the history of US-Russia relations. It produced bad results. Yeltsin opened his country’s assets to looting on a mass scale. He turned the Chechen capital, Grozny, into a wasteland. Standards of living in Russia fell dramatically. Then, at the end of 1999, plagued by health problems, he shocked his country and the world by resigning. As his final act, he named his successor: a little-known intelligence officer named Vladimir Putin. It is a delightful irony that shows how unwise it can be to interfere in another country’s politics. If the United States had not crashed into a presidential election in Russia 22 years ago, we almost certainly would not be dealing with Putin today.Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.