Yeltsin bows to disgruntled voters, pulls the plug on economic shock therapy

January 23, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Given the times here, it was only slightly startling to pick up a copy of Pravda the day after the appointment of a conservative-dominated government and find a large picture of Lenin splashed across the front page.

As it turned out, Pravda was commemorating the 70th anniversary of Lenin's death last week rather than the revival of communism.

But a glance at the worshipful photograph of a wise and kindly Lenin was reminder enough that anything can happen here -- and has.

Only days ago, Yegor T. Gaidar, the architect of Russia's economic shock therapy, was describing the Russian legislature as an enemy of the government, one that must be controlled if not ignored.

Freedom fighter

On Friday, the cherubic-looking economist was describing the same legislature as sort of a rallying point for economic freedom fighters like himself against the government he left only last Sunday.

Just over a week ago, President Boris N. Yeltsin was warmly embraced by President Clinton, who hailed him as an ardent reformer unafraid of making tough decisions.

By the end of the week, even close Yeltsin advisers were describing the Russian president as somewhat isolated and caving in precipitously to conservative pressure to go more slowly, less ardently.

This seemed to be reflected in the formation of a Cabinet heavily tilted against economic shock therapy.

The man who dared to bombard the Russian parliament with tank fire only three months ago appeared unable to stomach the first signs of voter discontent over the pain of economic reforms.

Got rid of Gaidar

Finally, as the newspaper Commersant asserted, Mr. Yeltsin himself did what his archrival Ruslan Khasbulatov, the former speaker of parliament, had failed to do: He got rid of Mr. Gaidar.

Out of such contradiction, nearly any outcome can emerge over the next weeks and months. The new government led by Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin well might issue wads of credits to cushion the failure of Russian industry, thus sending inflation whirling out of control and destroying the last vestiges of a functioning economy.

It is also possible that Mr. Chernomyrdin will, as he has said, remain committed to economic change and avoid those inflationary credits. And Russia could lurch along as it has the last two years -- not quite collapsing and not quite regenerating.

And anything in between could happen, even the Machiavellian. Perhaps, some observers say, Mr. Yeltsin is only giving the more conservative element a chance to fail so that Mr. Gaidar and his team can return with a clear mandate to rescue Russia.

Gennady Burbulis, a long-time friend and adviser to Mr. Yeltsin, disputes that theory.

"I am against the idea that the worse it gets, the better," Mr. Burbulis said. "We must prevent that from happening."

A great deal of this mess emanated from the Duma, the lower house of parliament elected Dec. 12 after Mr. Yeltsin dissolved the former parliament.

Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, leader of the ultranationalist Liberal Democrat Party, and the Communists made a strong showing, one that terrified Mr. Yeltsin and the world. Mr. Zhirinovsky is fond of fascistic talk and easy solutions.

Protest of millions

The vote was a protest by millions of Russians, who had heard many lectures from Mr. Gaidar and other democrats but little of the passionate rhetoric and sympathy offered by Mr. Zhirinovsky.

Instead of launching a fiery campaign to convince voters that bitter economic medicine now would improve their health in the long run, Mr. Yeltsin apparently blamed Mr. Gaidar for a poor campaign and succumbed to Mr. Chernomyrdin's pressure to ease up on shock therapy.

Mr. Gaidar announced he was leaving the government because he could no longer support its goals. He was followed by the finance minister, Boris G. Fyodorov, and confusion ensued.

The Duma had emerged from the elections as a conservative stronghold that could thwart reforms.

So it was odd to find Mr. Gaidar striding from the Duma on Friday, promising to protect reforms from his legislative seat.

"The government will be under the control of the Duma," he said, "and we will use our positions in the parliament to prevent the decisions which may be dangerous for the course of reforms."

'Nothing has changed'

A fellow leader of the Russia's Choice Party, the Rev. Gleb Yakunin, was quick to point out, however, that the nationalists, Communists and their sympathizers can outvote the reformers.

"We can't influence Duma decisions very much," he said. But he did not appear alarmed at that prospect. "The Duma will not be able to influence the decisions of the government very much. Nothing has changed."

Father Yakunin, a priest who was persecuted during the Communist years for his religious beliefs, was recently defrocked by the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church for running for the Duma. He was still in clerical garb last week.

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