Yeltsin's man bravely walks into lions' den Congress may eat reforms and him

December 03, 1992|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Russia's Congress was in no mood to listen yesterday as Yegor T. Gaidar defended his economic reform policies in a confident, forceful hour-long speech, so in command of his facts he didn't even look at his notes.

The Congress of People's Deputies, jeered him -- even as Mr. Gaidar pointed out that, despite predictions to the contrary, Russians are neither starving nor rioting in the streets.

Mr. Gaidar is being undone by the same circumstances that created him: he's an economist, not a politician; he's offering grand economic theory instead of soothing predictions; he's talking about tightening the money supply when people want to hear that the price of bread will go down next month.

The vast majority of people have absolutely no interest in how many rubles are in circulation; they care deeply that the price of the subway, only 15 kopecks a year ago, just went up from a single ruble to 3.

'A con man'

"Gaidar is a con man," said Mikhail Astafyev, a leader of the hard-line Russian Unity faction.

"I doubt his sincerity," said Vassily Lipitsky, leader of the industrialist Civic Union coalition, "and I doubt his program will be realized. He should be more realistic."

The reception given Mr. Gaidar yesterday is of more than passing interest. The Congress, which convened Tuesday for what is expected to be a 10-day session, could thwart the reforms set in motion by Russia's President Boris N. Yeltsin, and his acting prime minister, Mr. Gaidar.

All the anger and disappointment over the painful side of reform is being directed at Mr. Gaidar, the economist. About 350 of the 1,041 deputies who make up the Congress are determined to get rid of him, about 250 support him and others are undecided.

Today the Congress is expected to discuss assuming veto power over Mr. Yeltsin's appointment of his Cabinet and prime minister. With this weapon, the Congress would have the power to remove Mr. Gaidar.

The Congress, which meets twice a year and is the nation's highest legislative body, was elected before the Soviet Union dissolved and thus represents the old guard, and many of its members still yearn for those days.

They are more eager to hear about the failures of Mr. Yeltsin's government than its successes.

Gaidar is target

They are more willing to take on Mr. Gaidar the economist, accused of raising prices, than Mr. Yeltsin, the popularly elected politician. They tend to recall the past fondly, rather than embrace the future optimistically.

They also are more accustomed to the leadership of elderly men than young upstarts like Mr. Gaidar, who is only 36 and was virtually unknown until 1991 when Mr. Yeltsin made him his economic adviser.

So the deputies were enthusiastic yesterday, when Ruslan Khasbulatov, the Congress' speaker, complained about what a mess the country was in.

Mr. Khasbulatov said the nation's wealth was being redistributed "in favor of entrepreneurial capital with roots in the Mafia and the state apparatus." He said the government's economic policy was in "complete collapse," turning the nation into one of paupers.

Mr. Gaidar contended that in a year and a half, the Yeltsin government had taken a command economy that was at a virtual standstill and managed to push it toward market reforms.

"There was talk of cold and hunger and a break-up of the country," he said yesterday. "But none of this happened. We have gone through this period of adjustment with no social upheavals."

The frequency of strikes was reduced by six times in the last 10 months, he said to the jeers of the deputies. He praised the Russian people for working hard and showing more commitment to reform than the deputies.

"You don't even have to declare yourself an opponent of reform," he scolded the deputies. "To do this you only need to try and slow down the changes which . . . will help us create a normal economic system."

While forcefully arguing for his reforms, Mr. Gaidar has over the last months become enough of a politician to admit some mistakes and offer some compromises.

The shortage of cash in May and June brought the economy near catastrophe, he said, and it was the government's fault.

Trying to satisfy factory directors, he said Russia would continue to sell arms on the international market, citing recent sales of $1 billion to China, $600 million to India, and others to Iran and Syria.

Russia, he said, will join the developed West, if reforms are pursued. If not, he said, it will join the Third World. The choice, he implied, was up to the deputies.

"We are not on a spacious square where we can stand and decide what way to take toward a radiant future," he said. "We are on a narrow footpath, and the task is not to step away from it."

Mr. Khasbulatov, on the other hand, praised the Congress for being the "guarantors against the establishment of authoritarian rule in the country."

High-flown economic theory

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