Reformists split on how to appease hardliners: Russia's radicals are aiming to hold fast to their free-market policies

Click to follow
The Independent Online
REFORMIST ministers, who failed to unite for parliamentary elections last week, are arguing among themselves about whether they should modify their policies in the light of gains by the Communists and the far right, or stand up to the hardliners and press on with their attempt to build capitalism in Russia. The fate of the reforms will ultimately be decided by President Boris Yeltsin, who has been lying low since the shock election results were announced, apparently pondering their implications.

Those who favour sticking to the course of market reform, despite the success of the ultra-nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky who apparently drew a large protest vote from the victims of economic change, are mostly the young radicals grouped around the Deputy Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar. Led by the Privatisation Minister, Anatoly Chubais, they met at the weekend to try to set up an 'anti- fascist front' and bitterly criticised Yeltsin aides, including the press spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov, who have hinted that they might be able to find common ground with Mr Zhirinovsky's misleadingly named Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Mr Chubais has said he will never shake Mr Zhirinovsky's hand, a stand also being taken by the Minister of Culture, Yevgeny Sidorov.

But other ministers are beginning to question whether they can afford the luxury of being purists now that it seems the LDP will be in a position to out-vote reformers in the new parliament provided it can woo the Communists to its side. To prevent this happening, the reformers must attract the Communists into an alliance with them instead. But to do that, they will have to compromise on some of their economic principles.

The Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, has only ever been a half-hearted reformer and, in an interview published at the weekend, he took advantage of the disastrous election results to attack the young radicals. 'We should face the truth and admit that many people voted against the hardships and mistakes of the current reforms rather than for any specific political platform,' he told the trade union newspaper Trud. 'The election defeat is a personal evaluation of Gaidar as the person responsible for the Economics Ministry. The same goes for Chubais. They should think it over hard. They have a lot to think about now.'

Who Mr Yeltsin will trust to lead Russia remains to be seen, but he must decide where he stands before 11 January when the new parliament opens. Worryingly, a leading democrat, Lev Ponomaryov, said at the weekend that he felt 'President Yeltsin's grasp of what is going on in Russia is inadequate'. A week after the elections, Mr Yeltsin should have commented on their unexpected and disturbing outcome. But evidently he is still working out his strategy. In theory, Russia's new constitution, narrowly approved in a referendum on the same day as the elections, allows him great freedom to impose his will, but in practice he will have to take into account the character and mood of the Federal Assembly or risk it becoming as unruly as the Supreme Soviet which he dissolved by force this autumn.

In the past - albeit reluctantly - Mr Yeltsin has sacrificed his young protege Mr Gaidar when under conservative pressure. Last year, the President argued with the old Soviet-era parliament to have Mr Gaidar confirmed as Prime Minister, a job he was doing, but he had to bow to the rebellious deputies and drop him in favour of Mr Chernomyrdin. Mr Gaidar was brought back only in September.

There are signs that the President may be inclined again to appease the conservatives. He sacked some peripheral aides and let it be known that, while he favours reform, there will have to be some personnel and policy changes. Will retribution reach as far as Mr Gaidar and his immediate colleagues?

From Mr Yeltsin's point of view, the argument against axing the young men is that Western financial backers would interpret that as the abandonment of reform. Mr Zhirinovsky has demanded the heads of Mr Gaidar, Mr Chubais and the liberal Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, and if the President offered them up, he would be seen as yielding to the LDP leader. As Mr Yeltsin has said: 'I may respond to polite requests but never to an ultimatum.'

Worst of all worlds, page 14