Bitter Medicine for Russia

October 31, 1991

More than two months after the failed KGB coup in the Soviet Union, nervousness is setting in. The heady days of democratic rhetoric are over. A winter of hardships unfelt since World War II is knocking at the door. Listen to the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko -- because Russians themselves often equate poets with seers: "You cannot eat or wear freedom of speech and it will not heat your home in winter. We thought freedom would be a magic key to prosperity. But it does not work."

Even political adversaries welcomed a declaration this week by Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin that he would be his own prime minister in implementing needed but painful fundamental reforms. Politicians seemed relieved that he called for the postponement of regional elections, labeling them a "luxury" and saying: "It is impossible to hold vast election campaigns and simultaneously carry out deep-seated economic changes."

Specifically, Mr. Yeltsin proposed to lift price controls by year's end, to accelerate sharply the privatization of agriculture and light industry and to turn off the money flow that finances the central government's bureaucracies, including the Foreign Ministry. "If we enter on this path today, we will have concrete results by the fall of 1992," Mr. Yeltsin stated. "If we do not take a concrete step to break the unfavorable course of events, we will doom ourselves to poverty and doom a state with a history of many centuries to collapse."

This is the same shock therapy that was tried in Poland. It worked. But the dislocations accompanying the bitter medicine made people angry. In the weekend's elections, the seats of parliament were divided among more than 25 parties, with none holding more than 12 percent. Faced with this prospect for paralysis, Polish President Lech Walesa borrowed a page from Mr. Yeltsin's book, offering to serve as his own prime minister over the fragmented parliament.

In trying to postpone elections, Mr. Yeltsin clearly tries to avoid parliamentary chaos -- or an outright communist backlash. Ironically, some of the measures outlined in his shock therapy are similar to a 500-day plan of radical economic reform that Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev toyed with a year ago but ultimately rejected as too drastic and disruptive. Commenting on this week's Yeltsin proposals in light of the worsening economic conditions, one of that earlier plan's authors said wistfully, "It would have been much easier to do this when we still had the financial resources."

As the former Soviet empire moves to a post-communist era, Russia is playing a pivotal role. This week, as Mr. Gorbachev basked in the shine of television cameras in Madrid, Mr. Yeltsin boldly stole the limelight in Moscow. The obvious message: he is running the only show that matters.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.