The death of Yeltsin's dream: the Independent year

Russia's Crisis

THIS WAS the year in which the West saw the death of its Russian dream. Words such as "reform" and "free market" became as enfeebled as Boris Yeltsin.

A year ago Mr Yeltsin's government and its western supporters could at least brandish several concrete achievements.A stable currency. Low inflation. A small, but thriving, stock market. These have now fallen apart.

The end came in August when Russia abandoned its efforts to defend the currency (despite billions of IMF dollars), and defaulted on its internal debt. The banking system seized up, slamming its doors on millions of depositors. The rouble crashed to less than a third of its value. Saddest of all Russians saw theirsavings and long-delayed wage arrears shrivel away, condemning them to even more abject poverty.

Only five months earlier Mr Yeltsin had recruited an unheard-off, 35- year-old energy minister to replace his veteran premier, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Sergei Kiriyenko was a picture of a bewildered bank clerk. Yet within weeks, western diplomats were privately hailing his government, with its team of hard-headed market economists, as the most promising in Russia's post-Soviet history.

Not for long. August's debacle led to his sacking. Into his seat came the weathered arch-pragmatist and former Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, and a "nomenklatura" cabinet whose chief characteristics are plodding caution, a respect for Soviet methods, and suspicion of western remedies. Mr Primakov is now running the show. How could it be otherwise? Mr Yeltsin started the year with a respiratory infection, and was regularly troubled by illness and bouts of confusion.Though he may make it to the end of his term in 2000, history seems certain to show that the Yeltsin era fizzled out in 1998.

So what does 1999 hold? There is precious little cause for optimism. As the rouble printing presses roll, inflation will worsen and, with it, the economic pressure on an already deeply beleaguered population. GDP next year is expected to be about that of Belgium. Corruption shows no sign of abating. And political extremism is on the rise. The Communists may not have expanded their (frozen) electoral base but they are in triumphant mood, savouring the rout of the pro-western "reformers".

Democracy is making no real headway in Russia's regions. This year saw an attempt to kill Georgia's president, Eduard Shevardnadze; a deeply flawed election in Azerbaijan, and a crackdown on opposition forces in Kazakhstan. The most depressing event came in St Petersburg with the murder of Galina Starovoitova, standard-bearer of liberal democracy.

Was there anything to celebrate? Yes, but not much. Mr Yeltsin buried the Romanovs with real dignity. Parliament emerged stronger, having defeated Mr Yeltsin over his choice of a replacement for Mr Kiriyenko, a positive step in a nation where the constitution vests huge powers in the president.

And, although Mr Primakov is far from the ideal figure to lead Russia from its benighted state, he is not the knee-jerk Soviet, the "hardline spy master" that some in the West portray him to be.

The coming year will see an acceleration in the search for a successor to Boris Yeltsin. The only other candidates who stand a chance are the Communist, Gennady Zyuganov; Moscow's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, and General Alexander Lebed.

But they are much more alarming, to western liberal democratic eyes, than the wily and elderly, but safe, Mr Primakov.

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