Gaidar the reformist fields brickbats from the hardliners: Helen Womack in Moscow on the tribulations of the Acting Prime Minister

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The Independent Online
THE ACTING Russian Prime Minister, Yegor Gaidar, whom Congress refused to endorse yesterday, has had to endure an extraordinary number of insults in his short political career.

For one thing he is very fat, which has given rise to cruel cartoons in the conservative press portraying him as, for example, a dumpling about to be devoured by a hardliner using a hammer and sickle as a knife and fork. He has also had to live down the fact that his grandfather, Arkady, was a Bolshevik hero about whom songs were written. But worst of all have been the endless jibes about his youth.

At 36, Mr Gaidar is a child compared with the past geriatric leaders of his country. His critics have constantly used his age against him, dismissing him and his team of fellow economists as 'boys in pink pants', a derogatory Russian expression meaning immature kids. But his backers understand that age has nothing to do with intelligence, and value his education and professional competence. 'This is a Russian leader of a new wave,' the military historian Dmitry Volkogonov told the Congress this week. 'He is a symbol of whether we go ahead or turn back.'

Mr Gaidar's father is reported to be suffering from heart trouble and his mother to be taking tranquillisers because of worry over their son. 'The Congress is cutting him to the quick,' Itar-Tass quoted Mrs Nazhova as saying. But Mr Gaidar himself seemed to have let all the controversy just bounce off him and persisted in explaining his policies of price liberalisation and privatisation to the deputies whether or not they were paying attention to him.

Until last year Mr Gaidar and his fellow cabinet members, who mostly graduated with him from Moscow University in 1979, were little-known academics holding fringe seminars to thrash out their ideas for reforming Russia. Mr Gaidar, who was strongly influenced by his guru, Stanislav Shatalin, was biding his time while another young economist, Grigory Yavlinksy, had the ear of the then Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev.

But during the hardline coup attempt in August 1991 Mr Gaidar and his colleagues came to the defence of the Russian White House, which brought them to the notice of Boris Yeltsin. At first he was hesitant to appoint such politically inexperienced people to government posts, but a group of liberal deputies threatened to create a political crisis for the Russian leader if he did not give the young men a chance - and finally he yielded. Mr Gaidar was appointed Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in November 1991. Later he was made Acting Prime Minister but needed the confirmation of Congress to take on the job permanently.

Mr Gaidar, who has won the confidence of the West, told the Congress he was prepared to correct his mistakes and to address the problem of hyperinflation but he was not willing to compromise on the essentials of his reform plan. Russia was on a narrow path and had to stay the course, he said. Yesterday he reminded the Congress that an earlier Russian reformer, Pyotr Stolypin, who tried to bring in agricultural reforms under the last Tsar, had appealed to the people to give him 10 years to succeed. Mr Gaidar said he was asking for much less.

It was not a felicitous comparison, for in 1911 Stolypin was assassinated.