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After One Year in Power, Yeltsin Is Losing Focus

Yeltsin's first year draws praise from abroad, but Russians point to political confusion and a fading commitment to radical reform policies

By Daniel SneiderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 12, 1992


ON his first anniversary as President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin has reason to be pleased.

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Despite a depression-level collapse of production accompanied by hyperinflation, the silver-haired former Siberian Communist boss retains remarkably high popularity. And his government continues to win praise abroad for its willingness to continue a policy of rapid shift toward a market economy.

US Ambassador Robert Strauss sat down with President Yeltsin recently to talk about his trip to the United States next week. "I saw a very confident, upbeat, secure ... president of Russia," Mr. Strauss told American journalists.

But a very different view of Yeltsin's rule is found here. The broad shake-up of his government two weeks ago, bringing in a raft of new faces from the ranks of managers of huge state-run industries, has sparked renewed fears that the reform course is weakening. Yeltsin is accused of yielding to pressure, to the threat of mass industry shutdowns, in many cases organized by the factory directors themselves.

The tight-money policies aimed at restoring the value of the ruble and opening the door to foreign capital, engineered by the young market economist Vice Premier Yegor Gaidar and his team, are visibly slipping as billions of rubles pour off the printing presses to satisfy the demands of industry for new subsidies and to pay months of unpaid wages due to their workers.

The new government appointees, nicknamed the "red generals" in the press for their close ties to the military-industrial complex, openly call for putting off privatization plans for years, if not decades.

Ambassador Strauss defends some of these steps as concessions aimed at preserving the main course of reform. "Gaidar is going to have to loosen a bit ... if President Yeltsin is going to keep the consensus to govern," the US political veteran said.

A far harsher view was offered yesterday by Mikhail Leontiev, an experienced analyst of the respected Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent Newspaper): "The new Yeltsin government is exactly the `consensus' that was so much loved by his predecessor, Mikhail Gorbachev," he wrote.

"In the center of this consensus, one cannot perceive any constructive idea or policy - it is the consensus around nothing."

The appointments of five new vice premiers, three of whom come from the old Soviet industrial structure, is arguably a matter of politics, not policy. It is the implementation of the deal Yeltsin made in April with the leaders of an angry parliament to broaden his government. And the loosening of credit flows was also agreed on at that time in response to clear danger of mass bankruptcies and large-scale unemployment among the huge industrial plants.

"Now it is some kind of coalition government," says Alexsei Ulyukayev, the government's economic spokesman and a member of the Gaidar team. "Before it was a government of the liberal party. But that government in a nonliberal country could survive only for a few months. We enjoyed more success than we expected. Now it's time to have a coalition government ... with the only other real power in the country, the industrial party."