Leading Article: Optimists versus pessimists

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The Independent Online
BORIS YELTSIN should not be written off too easily. It is true that he appeared to stumble badly when he lost Yegor Gaidar, his reformist prime minister, a fortnight ago. At that time there were legitimate fears that conservative nationalists would take power under the wing of the new prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin. But Mr Yeltsin still has some fight left in him. His appointment of Mikhail Poltoranin to oversee the media shows him using the revolving-door principle to bring sacked associates back into power, as he has done before. Mr Poltoranin is an advocate of press freedom, and is therefore likely to use his authority to promote government policies rather than to censor the media. In other words, don't give up hope.

Pessimists will have none of this. They argue that Russia is basically unreformable, lacks historical experience of plural democracy and market economics, that its culture, reinforced by decades of Communism, is inimical to enterprise, and that its economy has been so deeply wrecked that it will not respond to market mechanisms. They say the Russian character is inherently anarchic, and that anyway there can be no hope of building a viable nation state with 25 million Russians outside it and 27 million non-Russians inside. Russia's unhappy fate, therefore, will be to go through a period of political and economic disintegration until the population becomes only too willing to subject itself to a new tsar, in whatever guise he appears.

The despair that this view induces should be resisted, not because the pessimists will necessarily be proved wrong but because they do not have to be proved right. Mr Yeltsin is still in power, with substantial popular backing. Most of Mr Gaidar's team is still at work, and Mr Gaidar himself remains an adviser to the president. Privatisation goes forward under Anatoly Chubais and, if not interrupted, will make reversion to state control increasingly difficult. A referendum on a new constitution is set for April, and will be followed by elections that should produce a more supportive legislature.

Critics such as Mr Chernomyrdin have no coherent alternative to offer, and seem out of their depth. They won their most important victory in July, when they prevailed on the government to pour credits into useless industries. That has already pushed the country close to hyperinflation and cannot continue indefinitely. They can reasonably plead that more attention should be given to the social effects of reform but, if Mr Yeltsin and his team keep their nerve, the reforms need not be thrown off-course. No one can convincingly offer a return to central planning, which was discredited before the reforms began. After all, economic decline began under the old system.

As for the cultural argument, Russia has come a long way from its roots. It is much better educated, more urbanised and more open to the West than ever before. Younger Russians are proving they can be as entrepreneurial and acquisitive as any other people. Although there are still huge distortions in the economy, mind-boggling inefficiencies and rampant corruption, the outlines of a revived, modernised Russia are dimly visible. It is possible the old guard needs one more chance to make a mess of things, in which case some rough waters lie ahead, but the optimists have a case that deserves a hearing.

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