Scares from Russia

December 16, 1992

By itself, the ouster of Russia's Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar does not spell an end to the ambitious reforms he tried to introduce. In fact, it may be that the transition from a central planning economy to the free market has progressed so slowly and chaotically that a shake-up at the top may be good. Yet the 36-year-old Mr. Gaidar was such a symbol of Russia's new capitalistic hopes to the outside world that his departure, forced by the reform-resistant communists of the Congress of Peoples' Deputies, raises concerns about stability in Russia.

Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrov underscored these concerns Monday by shocking participants of a European security conference in Stockholm with an anti-Western outburst that recalled the Kremlin's worst Cold War attacks. His chilling verbal assault was a ruse to draw attention to the "depth of the threat on our path to a post-communist Europe" posed by powerful anti-reform forces.

These are useful reminders -- especially to the incoming Clinton administration -- that Russia's drama is unfinished. The collapse of communism was so swift many outsiders were lulled into a false sense of optimism about the new republics that replaced the Soviet Union. The game is far from over, however. If things do not work out, many areas of the former Soviet Union could become Yugoslavia-type disasters.

Prime Minister Gaidar had so many officials rooting for him in Western capitals that there may be a tendency to view his successor, Viktor Chernomyrdin, with suspicion. Yet nothing in his career or performance is particularly alarming. Because so little is known about this 54-year-old energy technocrat, he ought to be given a chance to prove himself. A man who has kept Russia's huge but troubled oil industry going for all these years must have some talent.

Indeed, Mr. Chernomyrdin's elevation to prime minister could be a blessing in disguise.

It was so easy for the communist-dominated Congress of People's Deputies to criticize Mr. Gaidar because early on he got branded as a free-market adventurer. Members of that same congress have now selected Mr. Chernomyrdin from among a number of other choices, not necessarily because they knew the man but because his career record suggested he was a safe bet. If he indeed means what he says about continuing reforms, he just might surprise everyone.

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