Not long ago, at a luncheon meeting of foreign businessmen in Moscow, the question was asked: Does anyone believe his business would be better off if Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov was sacked?
The answer was unanimous. Primakov was viewed as the most stable, and also the most honest, candidate for leadership of Russia today.
Now that he has been dismissed by President Boris Yeltsin, most western businessmen believe the instability that will follow, and the lack of commitment to rooting out corruption, are going to be bad for their business.
The international money markets have already acknowledged this by cutting the price of Russian debt, and raising the premium for Russian risk. Trade finance for exports to Russia will be harder to raise,- insurance premiums for Russia-bound cargoes will be costlier. Rising dollar prices will translate into higher rouble charges, and falling Russian demand.
The importance of the corruption issue cannot be under-estimated. Primakov steadily gained in national popularity over months in which, in any other country, the combination of rising inflation, falling wages, and growing unemployment and poverty, would have generated mass discontent. Instead, he became the most trusted politician in Russia, and the one candidate the polls showed could win the presidential election in the first round. Call this the honesty effect.
The new nominee for prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, has served for years as Justice Minister, as chief of the Federal Security Service, and as the Interior Minister in charge of crime-fighting.
Those years prove what he can do to clean up corruption. Call this the do-nothing effect.
Yeltsin’s announcement on May 12 also promoted as First Deputy Prime Minister the Railways Minister, Nikolai Aksenenko, a man of such obscurity and political insignificance that he could not possibly threaten the president, or disobey him. A figure who has slowly ascended the St.Petersburg hierarchy with connexions to the Yeltsin family financier Boris Berezovsky, and campaign manager Anatoly Chubais — Aksenenko is so cautious, he doesn’t even have a personal opinion on whether Russia’s rail cargo rates should rise or fall.
Confronted on the point by regional governors a few days ago, Aksenenko promised to do nothing for at least three months.
That’s a promise which the policy of the Russian government can be expected to deliver, now that Primakov has fallen.
The political outcome of the turmoil will be to reduce Yeltsin’s rating in Russia from 7% to zero. It will galvanize the Russian opposition, pitching Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov to the pole position in the race for the presidential succession.
New politicians, like Samara governor Konstantin Titov, will start visibly running for the presidency. He turned down the offer of the First Deputy Prime Minister’s post last week, to give himself room for a more ambitious campaign.
Behind Aksenenko, it is certain that former deputy prime minister Chubais, and ex-prime minister Yegor Gaidar, will resume the policymaking role they had, when the rouble crashed last August. It was they who advised the Russian government to default on its bonds. It was their action that triggered the stripping of assets by Russia’s leading commercial bankers, the bankruptcy of the banks, and the collapse of Russia’s import trade.
Chubais and Gaidar are bound to appeal to western governments for a quick show of confidence in the new regime. US Under Secretary of State Strobe Talbott chanced to be in Moscow when the government fell, and he may be sympathetic.
But Talbott doesn’t export on credit, and he isn’t in the money-lending business. It will be remarkable indeed if there is a banker alive on Wall Street or in the City of London, who would endorse fresh funding for Chubais’s favored institutions, after what he did to inflict billion-dollar losses on western lenders nine months ago.
If Chubais offers to secure new loans by having the Kremlin issue a series of tax and privatization decrees — bypassing the legislature –western leaders are likely to remind Chubais that if he could not be trusted to honor legally authorized obligations last year, he can hardly expect illegal measures now to generate either enthusiasm or cash