There's hope for Russia

August 25, 1999

Here is an excerpt of an editorial from the Los Angeles Times, which was published Sunday.

THE DATE to watch in Russia is Dec. 18. That's when voters will choose the 450 members of the Duma, the lower house of parliament, a choice that could do much to shape their country's future, including its relations with the West.

With Boris N. Yeltsin's presidency a shambles and the Duma dominated by the naysaying Communist Party and its allies, Russians growing ever more desperate for better lives appear ready for change. Election of a centrist Duma could foreshadow the outcome of next June's presidential election, which will end the Yeltsin era.

The key figure in the new political equation is Yevgeny M. Primakov, who served eight months as prime minister before Mr. Yeltsin fired him last spring, partly because he was becoming too popular, partly because his anti-corruption efforts were reaching too close to Mr. Yeltsin's inner circle.

Mr. Primakov will head the new Fatherland-All Russia electoral alliance. He promises to increase the Duma's powers while reducing those of the president, to enact stronger anti-crime measures and to improve Russia's notoriously inefficient tax system. In polls, no one stands higher in public confidence.

But however sweeping the political changes that might occur, Russia's monumental economic woes will remain. The government reports that 51 million Russians -- one-third of the population -- live below the poverty line, on an income of less than $38 a month. Millions of pension-dependent elderly Russians subsist on no more than $18 a month.

Western efforts to ease Russia's transition from communism to democracy and a market economy have too often been ineffective.

They have also been repeatedly frustrated by bureaucratic sabotage and the systematic looting of Russia's resources by criminals and economic oligarchs. As loans and credits from the International Monetary Fund and other sources have trickled in through Russia's front door, tens of billions of dollars have been spirited out the back. Moscow's foreign debt, a staggering $150 billion, remains essentially not collectable.

The Clinton administration's Russia policy has been consistent, if uninspired. Pondering the alternatives, it has opted to stick with the erratic and ineffectual Mr. Yeltsin.

The West can't pick Russia's leaders; it can only hope Russians will have the sense to reject extremism.

If the December election sets Russia on a strong and responsible centrist course, the future should look brighter.

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