Yeltsin at the bitter end

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 January, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 January, 1994, 12:00am

RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin has almost guaranteed that his remarkable career will end on a sour note of failure, as he has dithered over, and finally decreed, the predominantly conservative composition of his post-election government.

One week after he assured United States President Bill Clinton that reform of the Russian economy would continue unabated, Mr Yeltsin looks more like his predecessor in the Kremlin, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: he is failing at a critical moment to follow through with the complex process of change which he himself has initiated.

The only resolute action which Mr Yeltsin took this week was to accept the resignation of the Yegor Gaidar, the man whose name has been most intimately linked with the Russian reform process. As he has bowed to the conservative advice of his Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, Mr Yeltsin has pressed ahead much in the manner of the soldier explaining why he is fleeing the battlefield - ''I'm just advancing to the rear''.

There is an additional biting irony as Mr Yeltsin appoints a cabinet in which older former communist apparatchiks predominate over younger, more supple-minded technocrats. Viktor Chernomyrdin was foisted on Mr Yeltsin (as a replacement for then Prime Minister Gaidar) in December 1992 by the old unruly Soviet-style parliament. That parliament has been forcibly dissolved but its influence survives.

Whatever happens now, it is already clear that Mr Yeltsin will not exert leadership in the one meaningful way left open to him.

Russia is in crisis. The danger is that, after miraculously pulling back from the economic brink towards which the nation slid in late 1992 and early 1993, the negative momentum will now be resumed. Yet opportunity still exists because, contrary to much domestic and foreign comment, the dedicated reformists did not lose the December general election - and neo-fascist Vladimir Zhirinovsky did not win it.

Essentially, the central theme of the first real Russian general election was that the reformists defeated themselves.

First, they minimised the hurt accomplished by the moves towards a market economy, especially among their natural allies, the Russians who were ''middle class'' under the old Soviet system, and who have seen their level of comfort almost disappear.

Next, they forgot the deep wounds inflicted on national pride by the sudden loss of the Russian Empire, and the nation's obviously diminished standing in the world.

Worst of all, they blithely assumed that many of them could safely go on an ego trip. So they formed their own little factions, and hoped that the electorate would reward their contention.

Despite all these mistakes, and despite the fact that both Mr Zhirinovsky's ultra-nationalists and the communists fastened on to the voters' frustrations, the various reformist factions still ended up with nearly half the seats in the lower house of the new parliament, the Duma.

Mr Yeltsin, preoccupied with winning approval for his new constitution, failed to insist on the formation of one reformist bloc prior to the election. His greater mistake has been to refrain from doing this in the five weeks since the election results were announced.

Mr Gaidar, former economic adviser under Mr Gorbachev Grigory Yavlinsky, Finance Minister Boris Fyodorov - these and many others should have been told to form a single group with a common programme. United, they would have formed the political base whichMr Yeltsin now critically lacks.

The Russian leader has not done this. There are no signs that he will do it. The reformists are still dividing themselves into ever-smaller factions. So the prospects for what may be Mr Yeltsin's concluding months or years in power look increasingly bleak.

As he laid down conditions for staying in the government, Finance Minister Fyodorov insisted that Central Bank Governor Viktor Gerashchenko must be fired. It was a legitimate, long overdue demand.

Mr Gerashchenko is hardly a friend of market economics. Monetary discipline is not his style. Earlier financial crises have been brought about in part by his willingness to finance government spending by merely accelerating the note-printing presses.

Mr Gerashchenko, in short, should have disappeared along with communism, the Soviet Union, and command economics. Somehow or other, rather like J Edgar Hoover once did in the US, he endures.

Mr Yeltsin has inexplicably re-appointed him to the new cabinet, hoping that Mr Fyodorov will forget about his precondition. Sensibly, it looks as if Mr Fyodorov has declined to politically emasculate himself in this way.

Mr Gerashchenko's retention illustrates the larger reason why failure will probably soon confront Mr Yeltsin.

It is not merely that the lack of radical reformist personnel in the new government will slow the process of necessary change in Russia's economy. The centrist, conservative bias of the new administration makes it almost certain that Russia will go backwards instead, despite its promises to do no such thing.

The most dramatic way in which this will be accomplished will be through continued, probably expanded subsidies to state-controlled industries.

The conservative apparatchiks, believing in a state-controlled market economy, are ideologically bound to continue bankrolling both the industrial and agricultural sectors with scant regard for market forces. Again they miscalculate that retaining uneconomic industries, and the social services which they provide, will undercut Mr Zhirinovsky while, in truth, such retention will ultimately create conditions in which the fascists may flourish.

Budget deficits will soar. So will inflation. Western willingness to provide aid will decrease. There is no counterpart to Mr Fyodorov in the new team, willing to battle and curtail these self-destructive tendencies.

The miracle was that Mr Fyodorov managed to bring inflation down from 2,600 per cent to 12 per cent per month. Now the renewed dangers have been highlighted as ordinary Russians have voted with their currency and have sent the rouble plummeting.

By itself, the rouble's decline further increases inflationary pressures. As the subsidies flow, hyperinflation will again threaten. Maybe, this time, Russia will not be able to avoid going over the brink.

It looks like being a sad end to a remarkable career. Mr Yeltsin has played many roles as he has adjusted to changing circumstances far better than any other former Soviet communist.

First, he refused to be intimidated when expelled from the Soviet Politburo. Then he had the courage to walk out of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union when few dared do so.

Next, he aroused Russian nationalism as he was elected Russian president. With great physical courage, he then led the people-power revolution that resisted the CPSU's attempted coup against itself and ultimately toppled the Soviet Union.

Mr Yeltsin has played the role of radical reformer, picking up where Mikhail Gorbachev dared not go. Most recently, he reluctantly and belatedly played the role of Cromwell when he called in the military to dissolve the Soviet-style parliament.

It is rare for any politician to be so adaptable to change. Maybe Mr Yeltsin will surprise us all by doing so once again. For now, a more tragic end seems to await him. The very words he once used, in his autobiography, to condemn Mr Gorbachev now apply to him.

''We are the last inhabitants of a country defeated by socialism,'' Mr Yeltsin wrote, as he portrayed Gorbachev as a ''lover of half-measures and half-steps . . . tactics which will eventually be his downfall, unless he realises his chief failing in time''.

Mr Yeltsin correctly predicted that Mr Gorbachev's limitations could lead to the collapse of the CPSU. But as he himself shies away from further radical reform, Mr Yeltsin's shortcomings risk the collapse of Russia itself.