Russia: hope and confusion

December 29, 1992

These are the days of hope and confusion in Russia.

Many Russians are preparing to observe the New Year. Millions of others are returning to the observance of the spirit and traditions of Christmas, which was banned for more than seven decades by communists. Under the calendar used by the Russian Orthodox Church, the resurrected religious holiday falls on Jan. 7. Between these competing holidays, the whole country is a study of a society in cultural and political conflict.

Only a year has elapsed since the ouster of Mikhail S. Gorbachev and the collapse of communism. But the tense duel between reformers and conservatives that characterized much of his rule continues as an inconclusive tug-of-war.

The reformers supposedly are in control. But their attempts to govern Russia have often been reduced merely to endless policy declarations and rule changes, which no one seems to heed. This certainly was true under Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, whom the conservatives recently managed to oust as too Western-oriented and too radical. Like so many Russian reformers before him, Mr. Gaidar equated reform with issuing decrees. The more decrees he issued, the fewer were implemented.

Viktor Chernomyrdin, the new prime minister, will now try his hand. He feels that an economy that operates in some predictable fashion must be a precursor to successful reform. This view is shared by Boris Fyodorov, the newly appointed deputy prime minister for finance. At 34, Mr. Fyodorov is an odd man on the Russian scene -- a banker with global financial expertise.

Much of the societal confusion in today's Russia is due to its fundamentally contradictory political situation. Although the communist regime was deposed a year ago, communists still exercise powerful decision-making and veto powers because of their disproportionately large representation in a largely appointed parliamentary body the country inherited from the now-defunct Soviet Union.

Time is running out on this anomaly, however. After a referendum is held on a new constitution in April, the communist-dominated legislature is likely to be dissolved. When that happens, the current stalemate between President Boris N. Yeltsin and the legislature will come to an end.

Already many members of the current parliament are beginning to realize that they have to begin operating on a normal political basis, i.e. with an eye toward re-election. That ought to increase their sense of responsibility as well as stability in the country. With sweeping constitutional change in the offing, Russian politicians face a new experience: they have to produce or be defeated.

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