Leading Article: Yelstin takes to the tightrope

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The Independent Online
BORIS YELTSIN set himself a balancing act in his keynote speech yesterday. He called for faster economic reforms combined with more regulation; free trade with stronger controls on foreign exchange; a crackdown on crime by a more democratic state; maximum power for the regions with tougher sanctions against those that break away or refuse to pay taxes; full participation in European security but a free hand in policing the area of the former Soviet Union.

These are not all necessarily contradictory policies. They stake out a centrist, compromise position that probably represents roughly what the majority of the population wants: reforms combined with security, law and order and a restoration of Russian self-respect. But, because the policies are centrist and will therefore please none of the more extreme factions, they will create tensions that will be difficult to manage with the diminished political authority that Mr Yeltsin now enjoys.

Softer cushions against economic reform will mean more subsidies and higher inflation. Controls on foreign exchange will curb the huge and damaging outflow of capital but also put a damper on entrepreneurial activity. Attempts to extract more tax revenue from the regions could backfire. A drive against crime is overdue and certain to be popular but could easily spill over into oppression and even worse corruption. Co-operation with Europe will be difficult to reconcile with a reassertion of Russian authority over the area of the former Soviet Union.

On paper Mr Yeltsin has the power to manage some of these tensions. The constitution gives him wide authority, and he has been busy consolidating his hold over the security services and the armed forces. He can also exploit public weariness with disorder, continuing divisions among the reformists, and Moscow's economic leverage over many of the regions, which limits their aspirations to independence.

He is, therefore, not without instruments and allies, and he has reasonably good relations with the prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, to whose policies he now defers. But he is in bad health and has been weakened politically by the results of the elections. He faces a running battle with his obstreperous new parliament, which yesterday voted ominously to pardon the rebels of last October.

Mr Yeltsin's future is at best uncertain, his main asset being the absence of any coherent, convincing alternative. For the West he will not be a comfortable partner because, whatever his true feelings, he will be obliged to strike postures to placate his nationalist opponents. The Russian people will from now on judge him by what he can deliver. The West should also respond more to what he does than to what he says.