Russians skeptical of Western aid Help not expected to influence poll

April 16, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Can Boris N. Yeltsin win the hearts and minds of Russia's voters in nine days' time with a campaign built around the theme of debt rescheduling?

The answer, of course, even as the world's leading industrial nations assemble a bouquet of aid plans for the beleaguered Russian president, is no.

Russia needs the money, and the relief, but Russians are wary of promises and skeptical of plans hatched in far-away places that would seem to have little to do with their own lives.

"People don't feel this," economist Vassily Silyunin said of a new aid plan by the Group of Seven nations announced in Japan. "They don't see it. In fact, if it comes to pass it's a huge help, but only we economists understand it."

Western leaders, particularly President Clinton and Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, have decided that without significant international aid Mr. Yeltsin, and his free-market reforms, will surely vanish from the scene.

On April 25 Russia will be holding a referendum on the future not only of Mr. Yeltsin but of the conservative Congress of People's Deputies as well.

The Clinton administration, since late March, has been leading the charge to get real, significant help to Russia, in a hurry, as a way of bolstering Mr. Yeltsin's position.

Yesterday, the G-7 nations announced a new $28.4 billion aid plan, to be added to an earlier $15 billion debt relief plan and a firm U.S. commitment of $1.6 billion made in Vancouver earlier this month.

The paradox is this: In the long run, Mr. Yeltsin probably would be sunk without such assistance, but in the short run it's not likely to make a tremendous difference.

The debt rescheduling is perhaps the most significant single element of the package, Mr. Silyunin said, but it's difficult for ordinary people to understand how their lives will be affected by a delay in national interest payments.

The most immediate effect will come from $700 million in grain credits agreed to in Vancouver. The credits will greatly lower the likelihood of bread shortages here, but even that benefit won't be visible for several months.

And over the long run the most tangible benefit could come from the $14 billion in the plan agreed to yesterday that may go toward the conversion of military factories.

Successful conversion, Mr. Silyunin noted, will keep those factories running. That in turn will keep unemployment at bay, and prevent the shutdown of a wide range of social services -- from kindergartens to housing to recreational facilities -- now provided by most big enterprises.

"An unemployed person won't support reform," he said. So, if Mr. Yeltsin can survive the referendum, the aid could eventually keep people from turning against him. But it is unlikely to make much of an impression among currently employed people.

The last major block of aid money in the G-7 plan would be $4 billion earmarked for a ruble stabilization fund, but the ruble has to be at least somewhat stable before such a fund can do any good, and Russia probably will not avail itself of the money this year.

Still, not surprisingly, Mr. Yeltsin and his aides hailed the assistance package.

At a meeting at the Bolshoi Theater with allies from the arts and intellectual communities, Mr. Yeltsin said the referendum would be "a turning point not only for us but for the entire world."

The United States, Britain, France and Japan have now recognized its importance, he said.

"Things cannot be allowed to be reversed. They realize that, and so are ready to help us -- and not only verbally, as has been the case for the past year," he said.

Taking a shot at some of his fiercest opponents, Mr. Yeltsin called himself a "Russian nationalist" and declared, "I want Russia to be a great power and be integrated with the world community."

He also announced at the meeting that he was stripping Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, who has turned against him, of his largely empty role as chief of agricultural reform. Mr. Rutskoi also lost his Mercedes, his Kremlin doctor and 17 of his 20 bodyguards.

More significantly, Mr. Yeltsin announced that he was prepared to rule unilaterally that to win the referendum he will need only a simple majority of votes, rather than a majority of all registered voters.

In the atmosphere of rampant apathy that exists today, such a change in the rules would be greatly to his advantage.

The question is whether he can make the change stick.

While Mr. Yeltsin was campaigning in Moscow, two of the chief figures in his government, Boris Fyodorov, vice premier in charge of economic reform, and Andrei Kozyrev, the foreign minister, were in Tokyo.

"On the whole, we are satisfied with the decisions of this conference," Mr. Fyodorov told the Itar-Tass news agency.

"But this is only the beginning. Every citizen of Russia must see the concrete fruits of Western aid to his country."

Back home, the president's foes were quick to call down some rain on his parade.

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