By John Helmer in Moscow
Today marks the anniversary of Boris Yeltsin’s election as President of Russia.
It is no moment for celebration.
The government which he led successfully over the attempted putsch of last August and through the disintegration of the Soviet Union now lacks credible authority in the Russian federation and among its people.
There is no agreement on a constitution to hold the federation together, or to divide the power granted by Russian votes for
president and parliament.
If the 18th century tax revolt known as the Boston Tea Party can be said to have begun the revolution for American independence, then the withholding of taxes by several regions and republics may be the beginning of another Russian revolution — this one against Russia itself.
The reform process which has been the basis of Yeltsin’s popular appeal is out of his control, and the economy he is responsible for is no longer operating rationally or predictably.
These are the claims of economic critics, like his former deputy prime minister, Grigoriy Yavlinskiy. They are also the claims of political critics as diverse in their parliamentary alignments as the constitutionalist Oleg Rumyantsev, and the nationalist Sergei Baburin.
Although the nationalists and their parliamentary allies — amounting to roughly a third of the Congress of Peoples Deputies — have called for the replacement of the government, they have not targeted President Yeltsin directly — not until last Friday.
The question for the President and his supporters is not whether they believe the criticisms of his performance are right or fair, but whether he can survive the situation a simple majority of Russians, and a larger majority of its ruling class, are certain the country now faces.
Those beliefs can be summed up in two convictions:
The government’s loss of authority will come to end, and the economic irrationality also. Fundamental political and economic changes are inevitable.
Whether President Yeltsin is carried off by these changes, whether he chooses to walk away from them, or whether he can survive to lead Russia are the questions everyone asks, and every Russian has the right to answer. But noone can be confident that a new Russian consensus can be agreed, or that the president will be part of it.
Former President Gorbachev is no wiser prophet than others for predicting a shorter rather than a longer time span. Few believe he will be a beneficiary if the prediction he makes to Western visitors of Yeltsin’s demise comes true.
Unfortunately for Yeltsin, his circle has been narrowing; this is customary in conditions of crisis. The strain is also showing in the
President’s demeanour. He can’t be cheered by the good-news advisors, and he can’t avoid hearing the bad news. But even those who are closest to him cannot credibly deny what everyone else believes.
First Deputy Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar has conceded the substance of the economic criticisms. In his most recent interview, he told Izvestia “there is a slump”. He qualified that only by saying “it is so far smaller than had been expected.” He has qualified the economic decline by saying it is “no catastrophe”.
Gaidar concedes the government has lost its political authority. “Virtually no government instructions were complied with”, he said, qualifying that this was in April, at the time of the last Congress. Despite improvement since then, he admits, “there is still no new and sufficiently efficient mechanism for enforcing government decisions.”
Gaidar also acknowledges the unpredictability of the economy and the irrationality of policy-making to deal with it. He qualifies this by saying there “were errors with percentages and dates”. In his opinion, it is the politicians who should be held to promises; professionals and administrators are bound to make misjudgements “when you get down to the practical aspects of programmes.”
What can President Yeltsin resolve to do on this anniversary?
He is grasping at straws if he makes new promises of economic recovery or if he demands new powers. The failure of promises he made a year ago is the reason he lacks the power he wants to exercise now. An autumn referendum would expose this, if he dares to call it.
He is also fooling himself if he believes his appeals to the Western leaders he will be meeting in the next few weeks will extract him, or the country, from its present predicament. A minority of Russians believed this in February; far fewer now.
Russia is going to be forced to look inward, not outward, for the relief of this crisis. No matter what conditions are agreed with the International Monetary Fund, there will be no rescue from the West.
The President has not showed himself to be an introspective man. But he has a talent his predecessor lacked for listening to others. As Russia looks inward to save itself, the best resolution for Yeltsin to make today is to go outside his circle, and perhaps inside himself, to hear what Russians and commonsense are saying.