A gaggle of frustrated Russian reformers

February 03, 1994|By William Safire

YOU CAN'T throw a snowball at the World Economic Forum in this ski resort without hitting a rejected Russian reformer.

Early last week, Russia's reformist finance minister, Boris Fyodorov, walked into President Boris Yeltsin's office with a him-or-me ultimatum: Either fire the inflationary Central Bank chief, Victor Gerashchenko, who was on a ruble-printing binge to prop up inefficient industry, or I quit.

"If Gerashchenko makes another mistake, he's out," Mr. Yeltsin promised, Mr. Fyodorov tells me.

Unsatisfied with this delaying straddle, the 35-year-old economist followed other free-marketers, abandoned by Mr. Yeltsin and spurned by the voters, over the side.

That leaves Russia's government in the hands of Mr. Yeltsin's prime minister, Victor Chernomyrdin, champion of the featherbedding state industrialists. His strategy: let inflation roar up over 20 percent a month -- that's a month -- then become a popular hero by imposing price controls.

How can Russians who believe in freedom avoid this? Evidently Mr. Yeltsin wants power more to preside than to lead; this may prevent dictatorship. But the reformers do not yet have a leader; the democratic way is to fight it out or make a political deal.

Their backstage power broker and campaign manager will be Gennadi Burbulis, the image-maker who talked the Russian military into letting Mr. Yeltsin speak atop a friendly tank; reformers see him as a combination Michael Deaver and Ray Bliss (go explain that to a Russian).

Several of the candidates for savior of Russia after the coming hyper inflation and freeze were lined up in a seminar at Davos. A tall Swede sitting in the audience next to me was high on Anatoly Chubais, in charge of privatization, as a political comer; he is last of the new capitalists running the rapids on the Yeltsin raft as it heads for the falls.

The Russian who clearly dominated the proceedings with both his passion and presence was Grigory Yavlinsky.

Known in the West as the man of the "500 days" -- the serious capitalist plan that Mikhail Gorbachev rejected, sealing his doom -- the 41-year-old economist heads a bloc of about 8 percent of the seats in the new Duma.

I collared him for a three-hour, late-night talk in an alpine hotel lobby. No wonder the reformers lost the election, Mr. Yavlinsky says: all that was offered was quasi-reform.

The promised stabilization of the ruble never happened; what little privatization was done was more like collectivization; since 1989, gross national product declined by half; instead of more democracy, the people saw more crime and corruption. And this was supposed to be "reform"?

What seemed to anger Mr. Yavlinsky most was that "payments were never made": last year, after prices were negotiated to buy goods from farmers and producers, the government double-crossed the sellers.

(Mr. Fyodorov glumly confirmed this, blaming overpromising by Mr. Chernomyrdin.) No wonder quasi-reform was rejected at the polls.

Mr. Yavlinsky has positioned himself as a constructive critic of Mr. Yeltsin's government today, and dissociated himself from its faltering reforms of the past.

He volunteered to be prime minister with a new team last week, and thus cannot be blamed for jumping ship as it headed into hyperinflation.

More to the political point, Mr. Yavlinsky has stopped trying to prove to intellectuals he has brains and begun talking bluntly to people about organizing a nascent party.

He wants to pull Russia's 89 states into seven manageable regions; he wants to give Russians "another choice besides paralysis"; he is trying to find the "pro-Russian, not anti-Western" language to connect free-market ideals to people's needs.

"I want to create what we do not have -- a political biography," says Mr. Yavlinsky, an electrician from Lvov, who makes no secret that his mother's father was a Jew.

"Politicians now appear overnight -- where from? Where did they stand during the Soviet Union's collapse? I want to have a history people can examine."

So he warns and participates and organizes and waits. "I am very optimistic, but not for this year."

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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