Soviet-era Economists Resurface

February 03, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- At the first signs of reformist weakness, economists of another era have begun to materialize here, urgently calling for more price controls and regulation of production.

President Boris N. Yeltsin quickly swatted them away, a high government official said yesterday, but their emergence serves as a reminder not only of how far Russia has developed its reformist thinking but of how patiently and tenaciously the opposition has awaited this moment.

The economists who resurfaced this week, sounding as if they were from the long distant past, actually were from the era of Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the former Soviet president who left office in December 1991.

They sent a report to Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, President Yeltsin and members of parliament blaming Russia's economic ills on excessively rapid reform and urging curtailment of privatization, price controls and state regulation of production in pursuit of an economy that does what it's told.

Laughable ideas

Anatoly B. Chubais, the privatization minister and sole reformer in the government after a recent shake-up that bowed to conservative interests, told reporters yesterday that such cobwebby ideas were laughable today.

"I should tell you that I have not read such a fundamental academic study which has nothing to do with real life, for a long time," Mr. Chubais said. "I would like to say to the illustrious Soviet academics, 'Come down to earth, dear friends.' "

The report -- "Social and Economic Transformations in Russia: The Modern Situation and New Approaches" -- was prepared by Leonid Abalkin, Nikolai Petrakov and Stanislav Shatalin, members of the economics department of the Russian Academy of Sciences and former advisers to Mr. Gorbachev.

Not so long ago, they would have appeared quite radical -- advocating a market economy when communism was still officially revered -- even if they believed the government could develop one by issuing the right orders.

Today, no one still talks about communism. And reformers such as Mr. Chubais describe these earlier reformers as frozen in the past. He repeatedly referred to them as "Soviet" academics, making that era sound as if it were in the Stone Age.

He quoted Mr. Yeltsin as saying, "These people have already had a chance to give advice."

Faltering reforms

Mr. Chubais said they were rearing their heads at a moment when reforms appeared to be faltering.

"Despite the fact that age has obviously taken its toll of the professional competence of the Soviet academicians, their political flair and their feel of the political situation remain as keen as ever," he said.

So far, Mr. Chubais said, reforms are safe from such assaults, even though the two chief philosophers of change, Yegor T. Gaidar and Boris G. Fyodorov, quit the government to protest conservative reins on their work. Mr. Chubais said the government's position on reform will become clear in the next week or so when Mr. Yeltsin submits a budget for the first quarter of 1994.

"I believe the government's reform policy has come under threat," Mr. Chubais said. "At the same time, and this should also be stated clearly, this is so far a potential threat. The government has not yet passed a single decision that could be described as aimed to slow down reforms or to stop reforms."

The kind of budget that emerges, he said, "will have crucial importance." The budget is expected to reveal whether or not the government will pursue inflationary policies that could destroy some of the gains achieved by reform.

Mr. Chubais himself has vowed to stay in the government until his privatization office has finished its work. His target is June 30.

"I can tell you flatly that the program will be implemented in full measure to that last privatization voucher," he said.

New class created

In doing so, Mr. Chubais and his department will have created a whole new generation of owners with a deep interest in reform.

This new generation is just as tenacious as the old one -- and the new one has the advantage of time.

Among this new group are people like Viktor A. Amelin, director of a small Moscow data-processing company that is in the middle of privatization.

"Privatization in Russia is too deep, it's gone too far to reverse it," said Mr. Amelin, who only three years ago was a bureaucrat in a government ministry with no particular stake in anything.

"Privatization has affected too many layers of the population. In general, this transition to the market is irreversible and can't be stopped."

While the economists are talking, people like Mr. Amelin are working. He's trying to figure out how he can position his company to survive the next few years, which he is certain will be rough, as he and other businessmen are buffeted by fits and starts in the government.

Conclusion inevitable

He would prefer, of course, that the government follow policies that avoid inflation and speed up reform. But if it doesn't, he'll find a way to cope until what he imagines is the inevitable conclusion.

"We only have to survive this time," he said, "and our future will be bright."

While the old economists see loss, Mr. Amelin sees opportunity. "There are too many of us now," he said. "There are too many heads of enterprises, too many people engaging in commerce. There's too much to lose. We won't stand for everything being reversed."

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