Leading Article: Policies before personalities

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IF THE resignation of Yegor Gaidar, chief architect of Russia's economic reform, meant that someone else would now introduce an alternative policy, there would be no great need for despondency. Mr Gaidar's ideas are not the only ones worth considering. There are respectable arguments among Russian reformers and Western economists for other approaches.

But Mr Gaidar is not giving way to an alternative policy. The signs are that he will be replaced by a muddled mixture of compromises among warring factions. Worse still, his policies will be - indeed, already are - regarded as discredited before they have had a chance to prove themselves, so he will be weaker in opposition than he should be. The main reason for the sufferings of the Russians is not that reform has been pushed ahead too fast by Mr Gaidar, but that it has been undermined by weak and wavering governments, obstructed by bureaucrats and exploited by criminals.

On paper, the situation looks much better than it does to the person in the street. Inflation is down and real incomes are moving up. Nearly half of industry has now been privatised. Although output has dropped sharply, much of the drop is in sectors that need to close anyway. All the signs are that if the reforms were to continue, the improvements would become much more visible by the end of this year, with real growth in 1995.

But, quite apart from Mr Gaidar's resignation, there are also many negative signs. The legal and administrative framework for a functioning market economy is still flimsy. Much of the privatisation amounts to little more than paperwork. The central bank is not yet under control. The much-vaunted Federal Insolvency Agency, signed into existence only recently by Boris Yeltsin, has announced that it will not be closing any factories down.

The fault lies not primarily in economics but in politics. The reformists have bickered so long among themselves, and failed so conspicuously to carry their message to the nation, that elections intended to strengthen them have only weakened them. Nor has there been any sign over the past few days that they have learned from their mistakes.

Mr Yeltsin himself is too weak and too ignorant of economics to give a lead. Western governments have set up Mr Gaidar as the guarantor of economic reform and Mr Yeltsin as that of democracy. With one gone and the other wobbly it is time to take a less personalised view of Russian affairs. The best contribution the West can make with the modest leverage at its disposal is to confront the muddle in Moscow with as much clarity as possible.

Instead of supporting individuals, it should define its aims and interests and lay out with precision the policies that it will and will not support. That way Russian politicians, although disoriented at home, will at least know where they stand in relation to the West. This might even help them work out their own priorities.