Russia's new premier backs reforms

December 16, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Russia's new prime minister may be a former Soviet apparatchik, and he may disapprove of flashy commerce, and he may support price controls on energy, but he promised yesterday to plunge onward with reform.

"I am for deepening the reforms," said the new prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, who was selected Monday after President Boris N. Yeltsin dropped his fight to keep Yegor Gaidar. "There is no way back."

"I have never given any reason to anyone to say that I will change the course of reforms," Mr. Chernomyrdin said -- and, in fact, that defines him almost precisely, because he has given few reasons for anyone to say what he will do at all.

Democratic reformers who are inclined to be angry accuse Mr. Chernomyrdin of being old-fashioned, conservative and enamored of big state enterprises. Most of all, they accuse him of not being Mr. Gaidar.

Those who are inclined to be hopeful point out that he is "above politics" -- which is to say he is not a politician -- and that he has, after all, been a Cabinet member since last summer, in charge of energy.

Conservatives hope he will prove to be one of them, with an eye toward preserving the old structures as much as possible. But no one knows what will happen now.

Mr. Yeltsin, who seemed crushed Monday by his own decision to drop Mr. Gaidar and nominate Mr. Chernomyrdin, met with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl yesterday and seemed his usual hearty self.

"We have been working with Chernomyrdin a long time," Mr. Yeltsin said, "and I'm sure that there will be no departure from reforms."

Mr. Yeltsin stressed that the reform program had emerged relatively intact from the 12-day session of the Congress of People's Deputies that ended Monday, even though the Congress was firmly in the hands of his opponents.

"Of course, the president and the Congress were forced to come to a compromise," he said yesterday, "but that is common enough in politics."

The political blows he took may hurt Mr. Yeltsin or be soon forgotten. Mr. Chernomyrdin may represent a crucial turning point in the reform program, or he may be a short-lived transitional leader.

He was all vague blandness yesterday. He reaffirmed his belief that an industrial revival is needed to put Russia on track. He said that hard times still lie ahead but that the economy should stabilize in 1993. He said he believes in free prices, except for oil and gas.

The key issues facing him will be:

* Privatization. This fall, Mr. Gaidar's government issued vouchers to every Russian citizen to be used to buy shares in what up to now have been state enterprises. The government planned to sell off 9,000 such enterprises in 1993.

Russians greeted the vouchers with indifference or scorn. Many assumed that they would be fleeced. The vouchers, with a face (( value of 10,000 rubles, began trading and dropped to a low price of 3,000 rubles in November. They have climbed back up nearly to face value.

The industrial managers favor a privatization plan that would, in general, turn over enterprises to their workers -- and managers.

Mr. Chernomyrdin undoubtedly will come under pressure to alter the government's course.

* Banking and other structural parts of a market system. Without a modern banking system, credits, payments, loans and checkbooks are cumbersome or nonexistent. Without clear laws on the use of property, few are willing or able to consider even such minor investments as opening a store. Without contract law, everything becomes a gamble.

The absence of these elements has driven much of Russia's entrepreneurial energy into quick street-side buying and selling -- the kind of activity Mr. Chernomyrdin and other managers find so distasteful.

* Inflation. Prices have risen about 2,000 percent in 1992. Mr. Chernomyrdin said yesterday that he wants to help big industries pay off their debts to each another, which could be like lighting a match in a room filled with gasoline.

Mr. Chernomyrdin revealed little of his intentions, except to say he believes in reform. That doesn't leave much for average Russians to go on. As Moskovskaya Pravda said, "The name of the new premier of Russia means nothing to an overwhelming majority of citizens."

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