On new holiday, Yeltsin celebrates Russia's gains

June 13, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- A direct and confident President Boris N. Yeltsin called on Russians yesterday to reflect on just how wrong the pessimists have been about the last few years.

Speaking on Russia's newest holiday -- the commemoration of the declaration of sovereignty within what was then the Soviet Union, in 1990 -- Mr. Yeltsin reminded his listeners how hopeless things seemed at the time, and how much they have changed since then.

In 1990, he pointed out, people were even debating whether a transformation of Russia was possible.

Indeed, that year was a period of dark moods, bordering on despair. Visitors here found Russians increasingly disenchanted with the government of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, whose reform program of the 1980s had seemingly bogged down.

Pro-democracy demonstrations filled the center of Moscow, yet few could see a way out from under the dead hand of a Communist system that had lost all its inspiration and vigor.

But when the right moment came, the way was found.

"The times we have lived through have been over-saturated with events," Mr. Yeltsin said yesterday. "The past three years have been the most important three years of our lives."

Russia is still in a state of crisis, he said -- but the burly president, speaking at an hourlong news conference in the Kremlin, went on to declare that the most wrenching times were past.

They fell, of course, during the winter of 1991-1992. It was another point when pessimism seemed the only sensible state of mind. Economic collapse, Mr. Yeltsin, pointed out, appeared to be a very real possibility. The shelves were bare, and the system was grinding to a halt.

"But that feeling of an impending catastrophe is now a thing of the past," he said. "We managed to avoid an economic collapse."

Mr. Yeltsin pointed to the 100,000 private firms, and the 300,000 private farmers who have established themselves since January of 1992.

"Russians have lost their fear of the market," he said, and he called that the most pleasant surprise of his presidency. The real benefits of the market are sure to follow, he added.

The country, he said, had survived its darkest moments because its people realized that any attempt simply to reform the old Communist system was a "dead end."

"We still have ground to cover to become a civilized and affluent society," he cautioned. The great tragedy of the 20th century, he said, was the Communist delusion that justice and happiness could be achieved through violence. And many paid the price for that delusion.

Yesterday's holiday, which also happens to mark the anniversary of Mr. Yeltsin's election to the presidency, finds him in a commanding position. Bolstered by popular support in an April referendum, he is now overseeing a constitutional assembly that is working to create a new Russian government -- one that he seems likely to dominate.

Mr. Yeltsin probably will not get all he wants out of the assembly, and it may not finish by Wednesday, as he had hoped, but at the very least a new parliament appears certain.

Mr. Yeltsin said yesterday that the assembly was conducting itself much more like a deliberative body than Russia's current parliament ever does, and there has been speculation that the assembly may just declare itself the new Russian legislature, and keep on sitting.

Even if it doesn't, Mr. Yeltsin said he was sure that elections to a new parliament would bring in younger and "fresher" people -- legislators, he added pointedly, who understand a market.

The president, who was nearly done in by the Congress of People's Deputies in March, before the April referendum put him back on his feet again, acknowledged yesterday that he had considered simply abolishing the Congress. "There was such a temptation, and I had more than one sleepless night thinking about that," he said. "But then, it would not have been democracy."

Mr. Yeltsin also said yesterday that the ruble, and the economy as a whole, would be stabilized by the end of the year, although he was quick to play down hopes arising from a slight strengthening of the ruble last week. (It now trades at 1,200 to the dollar.)

But he said the biggest regret of his presidency was his promise that the economy would improve by the end of 1992. It clearly didn't work out that way.

"So let's just hope for stabilization this year," he said.

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