The choices for a nation in political limbo

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The Independent Online
SO WHAT happens next? Russia can't pay its debts. Its banks are teetering on the brink. The rouble is sliding. And Boris Yeltsin has sacked his prime minister and government for the second time in a year, condemning the nation to another bout of political limbo.

Given the events of the post-Soviet years - an attempted coup in 1991, the shelling of a legislature in 1993, a preposterous war in Chechnya in 1994 - matters could theoretically be worse. But not much.

Mr Yeltsin's shake-up looks very much like that of a leader who, with less than two years to run on his second term, has finally run out of ideas. The 60-year-old Viktor Chernomyrdin, prime minister for five years before his sacking in March, will be seen by many Russians as soiled goods. Popular faith in the ability of Russian politicians to offer remedies for their multitude of ailments has been declining. They have seen officials come, trumpeting promises of genuine change, and go, often after a flamboyant sacking by Mr Yeltsin.

But this will make matters worse. A miner who, with several hundred others, has been picketing the government's Moscow headquarters this summer, was last night asked for his response to the news. Coining a favourite Russian proverb, he complained that the Kremlin was "hanging noodles on our ears". In other words, trying to con the people. Others on the streets of the capital simply described it as a "joke". Cynicism about the system could hardly run any deeper - a disturbing prospect for a country that has only being trying to build democracy for less than a decade.

Mr Chernomyrdin, who was reported last night to be working on drawing up a cabinet, will have much on his plate when he assumes office today. Top of his priorities will be averting the total collapse of the rouble and rebuilding investor confidence in Russia - a task made still harder by Mr Yeltsin's decision to fire the government mid- crisis. He is certain to face pressure from a handful of highly influential oligarchs, who take credit for bankrolling Mr Yeltsin's election campaign in 1996, and now want him to rescue their troubled banks.

He may also find himself embroiled in negotiations with foreign and domestic investors over rescheduling $40bn (pounds 24.7bn) debt, depending on how much progress Mr Kiriyenko made on this front.

He must assemble a cabinet: the likelihood is that Mr Yeltsin will keep Sergei Stepashin, the Interior Minister. His Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, also seems likely to remain. Western eyes will be trained on the fate of Anatoly Chubais, Mr Yeltsin's chief intermediary with international financial institutions, and the chairman of the Central Bank, Sergei Dubinin.

He must find a new image. Despite his efforts to promote himself as the "good bloke" of politics - a bushy-eyebrowed everyman who plays the accordion and rides a jetski - he is viewed widely as one of the beneficiaries of a murky period in which the elite have enriched themselves. He is, after all, the former chief executive of the energy monopoly Gazprom.

Although it was but a minor sensation, his profile was not helped by a hunting expedition last year in which the portly Mr Chernomyrdin shot two cubs after they were goaded out of hibernation; a road was laid specially to convey him and his friends to the scene.

Returning after five months out of office, Mr Chernomyrdin now faces a country whose chronic problems are no better, and in some cases, worse than he left: a ruined and disconsolate army, a multi-billion-dollar wage arrears bill, a desperate lack of credit or investment, collapsed health and education services, crime, corruption

The 147 million population has proved remarkably docile, not least because it is spread over 11 time zones, and that the orthodox engines of protest - the Communist Party, the trade unions, even the media - are compromised by an ambivalent, even cosy, relationship with the nomenklatura in power.

There have been countless protests, but few achieve much more than more, usually vacuous promises, and the occasional botched remedy. Yet an election is due in less than two years. The sense that Mr Yeltsin, his government, and the wealthy elite who support it, are groping in the dark could easily prompt Russians to veer in another direction, towards a more unsavoury political leadership.