Russian reform

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 August, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 August, 1998, 12:00am

Arch political survivor though he is, Boris Yeltsin's latest game of cat-and-mouse with his cabinet may signal the beginning of the end of his presidency. Mr Yeltsin hinted in his television address that he would not stand again in 2000, but if his latest manoeuvre does not succeed, there must be a question over whether his tenure will last its course. If Russian government has no choice but to press ahead with reform of the banking system, continue its tight monetary policy and increase pressure to force defaulting companies to pay millions in back taxes. None of this is certain under the premiership of Viktor Chernomyrdin, causing the rouble to plummet and further damaging investor confidence which is already undermined because of the debt restructuring programme.

Mr Chernomyrdin's reinstatement comes at the price of concessions to Gennady Zyuganov, the communist party leader, who has demanded as yet unspecified policy changes in return for left-wing backing. In any event, Mr Chernomyrdin is closely associated with the powerful bankers and financiers who enriched themselves buying state assets at knock-down prices under privatisation, and now form the loudest chorus of opposition to reformist policies. Mr Chernomyrdin is unlikely to keep up the pressure which the previous prime minister Sergei Kiriyenko was imposing. Mr Kiriyenko was poised to ask parliament for approval for further harsh measures to reduce the budget deficit, but that programme will almost certainly be toned down.

Bonn has some leverage on Russian policy because of the massive loans that German banks have made to the country in recent years. About US$30 billion is still outstanding, and the German government will continue guaranteeing the loans provided Moscow presses on with the programme it agreed with the IMF. But that will not be easy with the new coalition government. Meanwhile, public discontent increases. Few ordinary Russians enjoy a better life under capitalism, and there are growing signs that their patience may not last much longer.