Reformers face legacy of hate

Russian elections: Hit hard by privatisation, the professional classes are wooed by a whizz-kid economist and a former PM
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The Independent Online


Had Mikhail Gorbachev allowed the whizz-kid economist Grigory Yavlinsky to try out his ambitious plan to privatise the Soviet economy in 500 days, Mr Yavlinsky would hardly be the popular politician he is today. But the father of perestroika delayed introducing economic reform, passing the buck to Boris Yeltsin and his chosen young economist, Yegor Gaidar.

Mr Gaidar and his team plunged in - dubbed the "boys in pink pants" because, in their 30s, they were young to be in government - and took the colossal risk of freeing prices after decades of state control. That was back in January 1992, at the start of Russia's transformation to capitalism.

Naturally Mr Gaidar made mistakes, and got his hands dirty. Now he is a hate figure for many Russians, and his party, Russia's Democratic Choice- United Democrats (RDC-UD), will be lucky if it gains enough votes in parliamentary elections on Sunday week to pass the 5-per-cent threshold to enter the assembly.

During the painful reforms, Mr Yavlinsky sat on the sidelines, criticising and keeping an unsullied reputation. Now he is seen as one of the few politicians worth a vote by those electors who want to prevent a Communist landslide or the rise of ugly nationalists. His Yabloko party appears consistently in second place behind the Communist front-runner in the opinion polls. If it does indeed do well, Mr Yavlinsky, 43, will use his success at parliamentary level to propel himself into the race for president next June.

The parliamentary-election shock of two years ago was the victory of the extreme nationalist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and his misleadingly-named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). Liberals in the Western sense of the word, including Mr Gaidar and Mr Yavlinsky, wrung their hands and vowed to unite against the threat of fascism.

But the two politicians, who are really very close in their world outlook, differing only on economic technicalities, have failed again to pool their efforts. There was talk of them entering an alliance earlier this year, but a personality clash evidently wrecked the plan. Of course, Mr Gaidar needed Mr Yavlinsky more than Mr Yavlinsky needed Mr Gaidar.

It was not always so. In 1992, Mr Gaidar was Prime Minister while Mr Yavlinsky was out in the provinces, advising on local privatisation schemes. Under Mr Gaidar prices rocketed, but a market did begin to develop, and the shops, which had been catastrophically empty in the winter of 1991- 92, filled up with goods.

The Soviet-era Russian parliament howled in protest at the social cost of the changes, and in December 1992 President Yeltsin was forced to drop his protege and replace him with Viktor Chernomyrdin, the present Prime Minister. Mr Chernomyrdin, as leader of the "Our Home is Russia" movement, is now trying to persuade voters to persevere with reforms in order to reap the benefits.

But Mr Gaidar has withdrawn his support from the government, because of last December's military intervention in Chechnya. He now works closely with the respected human rights campaigner, Sergei Kovalyov, and if his party, with the uninspiring slogan "Be rational, say da to Gaidar", wins any votes, it is likely to be because of his strong stance over Chechnya.

Mr Yavlinsky, more charismatic than the pudgy-faced Mr Gaidar, also opposes the war in Chechnya, but his main argument with the government is over economic policy. Mr Chernomyrdin has paid special attention to the energy sector, but Mr Yavlinsky believes the emphasis should be on small businesses, so that Russia develops a healthy middle class.

While other parties are spending lavishly on television advertising campaigns, Yabloko found some free publicity in the autumn when election bureaucrats disqualified it on a technicality. The Supreme Court re- instated Yabloko, but not before Mr Yavlinsky had achieved martyr status.

The intelligentsia is the "constituency" being wooed by Yabloko, which means apple in Russian and also combines letters from the surnames of the founding members, Mr Yavlinsky, Yuri Boldyrev, a corruption fighter, and Vladimir Lukin, a former ambassador to the US.

Yabloko does indeed seem to attract professionals, such as teachers, doctors, scientists and artists, who have suffered from the loss of state subsidies but who resist nostalgia for Communism or the crude solutions of the nationalists.

They have been hurt by reform, but have not completely lost hope in its efficacy. Maybe Mr Yavlinsky's untried brand will turn out to be less bitter.