Yeltsin's second term Convincing win: Ailing president must deal with Russia's awesome economic problems.

July 04, 1996

SO MANY QUESTIONS remain about President Boris N. Yeltsin's poor health -- and who is in control in the Kremlin -- that his convincing re-election yesterday evokes relief but not much enthusiasm. At a time when Russia desperately needs a forceful and forward-looking leader, it clearly will not have either. Even as the Yeltsin second term begins, the Kremlin is embroiled in intrigues over power and succession.

This is a sad and troubling situation, which endangers the fledgling democratic reforms undertaken during the five years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It also is a prescription for domestic instability as political polarization continues and economic hardships worsen in various parts of the Euro-Asian land mass of Russia.

One reason why a communist comeback was a real possibility in Russia is the desperate and humiliating living conditions endured by many families. Millions of people have not been paid in months as factories in one-industry towns are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy or have closed their doors. There is little reason to expect improvement any time soon. In fact, things are likely to get far tougher and messier. The Russian central government is out of money. A crisis in the chaotic private banking industry is widely predicted. The pivotal agricultural sector remains a disaster.

More than in many other countries, life in Russia has always been characterized by a gap between words and deeds. In recent times, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, during his high-minded perestroika experiment, seemed to think that he could resuscitate dying communism by speechifying. Similarly, Mr. Yeltsin has increasingly tended to govern by issuing ukases. The trouble is, of course, that Russian bureaucrats are famous for resisting orders and policy declarations, whether good or bad.

Russia's post-communist government is underdeveloped. Many crucial functions, such as tax collection, are a shambles. The legal infrastructure is incomplete and precedents weak. No country can thrive that way.

Mr. Yeltsin's victory is a triumph for the president, whose hopes for re-election seemed doomed just a few months ago. He now has to prove to his dispirited people that they were justified in renewing their trust in him.

Pub Date: 7/04/96

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