All this will be yours one day, young Boris

Can the man tipped to succeed Yeltsin make reform work at last? Most Russians think not, writes Helen Womack

Helen Womack
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:07

"I will not tell lies, I will not take bribes or steal, I will explain to people everything I do, even the most unpleasant things." Could this be a politician?

The long-suffering Russian people desperately wanted to believe when Boris Nemtsov, the reformist young governor of Nizhny Novgorod region, and darkly handsome to boot, last week accepted the post of first deputy prime minister working alongside economics supremo Anatoly Chubais in the revamped government.

But bitter experience has taught them to be cautious.

"You don't know a man until you've eaten a sack of salt with him, as the saying goes," said Igor, a physicist who manages to feed his family by working on the side as a taxi driver. "And I have not eaten as much as one little sausage with Nemtsov."

The West hails the 37-year-old former engineer and environmental campaigner, who pioneered privatisation in his Volga River region and also influenced the Kremlin by organising a huge petition against the war in Chechenya, as the golden boy of Russian reforms.

With him on board, Russia now has "a vigorous team led by the greatest reformer of all - President Yeltsin himself," in the opinion of the US State Department, which commented on the cabinet changes in Moscow before Bill Clinton set off for the Helsinki summit.

But Russians are yet to be convinced that they have witnessed anything more than a change of cast at the Kremlin theatre, prompted by the fact that the Boris Yeltsin Show has been receiving extremely hostile reviews of late.

They are prepared to give Mr Nemtsov the benefit of the doubt. But only the most devoted fans of President Yeltsin believe he has made a fresh commitment to reform and clean government after years of playing off one politician against another while allowing corruption to flourish at the highest levels. According to the independent NTV channel, officials who last year were in the President's circle have been involved in the laundering of drug money.

"It's not that I blame Yeltsin personally. It's just that I don't believe any politician of that generation, who took in the lies of communism with his mother's milk, is capable of honest work to improve the lives of ordinary people," said Vitaly Matveyev, a classical musician who for most of the past year has been going cap-in-hand to his employer, the State concert agency Mosconcert, only to be told there are no wages for him.

Russians across the country, from scientists to miners, are in the same position. The government owes state sector workers and pensioners trillions of roubles because it has failed to collect taxes from those who have enriched themselves in the free-for-all of poorly organised market reform. A World Bank report said last week that some 40 per cent of the Russian economy was now in the hands of the Mafia.

The disinherited majority feel helpless. The media have reported at least two cases of top scientists committing suicide because they could not pay their staff. Television has also shown teachers donating their blood to earn money and firefighters who damaged their health at Chernobyl on hunger strike for their overdue disability benefits.

Albanian-style anarchy has yet to break out, but patience is wearing dangerously thin. The trade unions have called a nationwide protest for Thursday.

Evidently, it was fear of social unrest that jolted Mr Yeltsin into action after he got over the pneumonia which complicated his recovery from last November's heart operation. As a prelude to the cabinet reshuffle, he called Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin into his Kremlin office and, before the television cameras, theatrically dressed him down like a naughty schoolboy for the mess the country was in. But he did not sack him.

Instead, he gave him the task of restructuring the government. Mr Chubais, 41, public enemy number one as far as the communist opposition is concerned, because he was in charge of Russia's main privatisation programme and also masterminded Mr Yeltsin's campaign last summer, was named first deputy prime minister and finance minister. Mr Nemtsov is also a first deputy prime minister. Together the two young reformers will pick others to work under them, possibly market economists from Yabloko, the party of the liberal politician Gregori Yavlinsky.

Mr Chubais will concentrate, belatedly, on gathering taxes. Posters are plastered across Moscow showing a yuppie, pointing with his mobile phone in the manner of the call-up officer in wartime propaganda, and saying: "Have you made your tax declaration yet?"

Mr Nemtsov has been given the poisoned chalice of housing reform and breaking the monopolies which control lucrative sectors such as the gas industry.

Mr Nemtsov said he had not wanted to join the government but yielded when he saw that Mr Yeltsin was determined to complete his reforms. He said he was burying his hopes of a political career in future, because it would have been more advantageous for him to keep his hands clean in Nizhny Novgorod.

Although a few astute Russians saw the political coquetry in this, most took it at face value: "Poor lad," said an old man in a fur hat, filmed by Russian television on the streets of Nizhny Novgorod. "He's done a lot of good for us, but they will eat him alive in Moscow."

Mr Nemtsov will become very unpopular because housing reform means bringing the cost of utilities, subsidised for decades, to realistic market levels.

However, coming from the provinces to the Kremlin has yet to harm the career of any Russian politician. Mr Yeltsin says that he sees Mr Nemtsov as a potential presidential candidate in 2000. He is on the first rung.

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