Economy Shakes Russian Premier

Acting Prime Minister Gaidar is defiant amid considerable, but fragmented, opposition

CALLS for the resignation of the Russian government have rung once again through the white-marble halls of the parliament since the fall session opened this week.

The assault on the government is broad-based - from hard-line former Communists and their extreme nationalist allies to moderate factions among the parliament's 248 members.

The government promised economic stability by this fall when it embarked on its radical market reforms at the start of the year, recalls parliamentarian Mikhail Chelnokov, leader of the centrist Civil Society. They have failed, he says, accusing the authorities of pursuing reforms "not for the sake of Russia but in the interests of Western capital."

The target of critics' ire is reform czar and acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, the economist who cloaks his determination behind a diffident, professorial demeanor. On Tuesday, when the parliament opened, Mr. Gaidar delivered his report on the economy, a 40-minute blizzard of statistics that did little to shed a positive light on the deep crisis affecting the economy.

From a fall in production that has wiped out a quarter of the economy's output to rising inflation and a weakening ruble, Gaidar offered little to counter the portrait of collapse his critics paint. But he dismissed charges blaming the trouble on his "shock therapy" policies. Rather he put the blame on compromises in his tough monetary policies forced by his opponents, including the bosses of the huge state-run enterprises. Now, he told the parliament, the country must return to tight credit and budget p olicies or face "a complete crash of the country's monetary system."

Speaking to reporters after his speech, Gaidar was characteristically defiant.

"Starting from February, there has been lots of talk about forming new governments, nominating new premiers," he said. "I am not ready to resign."

The acting premier gave reasons for his confidence: "I don't think the parliament has the numbers to force my resignation. I think that [Russian President Boris] Yeltsin will stand behind me."

In both cases, there are reasonable grounds for Gaidar's assessment. While the government faces considerable opposition in parliament, those forces are fractured into an array of groups which are divided among themselves. Only the hard-liners, with an estimated strength of 50 members, are uncompromisingly anti-government.

Among conservative and centrist groupings, such as the Industrial Union and Agrarian Union, positions tend to soften. The clearest expression of this is the alliance of several groups known as the Civic Union, which includes Vice President Alexander Rutskoi and the head of the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, Arkady Volsky. The Civic Union issued its own vaguely worded "anti-crisis program" before the parliament opened, a reiteration of its calls for increasing credits to preserve key industrie s and for restoring state controls over the prices of key items such as food and energy supplies.

The Civic Union, while criticizing the government, sharply disassociates itself from calls for its ouster. Rather it seeks to join the government, calling for Cabinet reshuffles in which Gaidar and his reform allies would maintain a role, albeit one of less authority. A move in this direction was already made by Mr. Yeltsin earlier this summer, in response to pressure from the industrial lobby and others.

"Some serious changes in the composition of this government must be made," argues Oleg Rumyantsev, leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party. "The shock period of this economic reform is moving to its end and the second stage must stabilize the results.... Stability can be achieved only by a mixed government, [with] mixed approaches to economic reform."

Mr. Volsky's name is the one most commonly mentioned as a replacement for Gaidar. While there was a truce of sorts earlier this summer, the Gaidar camp has recently sharpened its response to the Civic Union's criticism.

"What I mostly hear is their criticism of what we are doing and wishful hopes about what should be done," Economics Minister Andrei Nechayev told reporters at the parliament. "But I've never once heard anything about how it should be done."

Whatever the weakness of the opposition, however, Gaidar's survival rests more than anything else on Yeltsin's backing. For it is Yeltsin, not the government, who still enjoys considerable popularity in the country.

"President Yeltsin is stronger today politically then he's ever been," US Ambassador Robert Strauss told reporters on Monday. "I think he sees obstacles to getting things done, but I don't think he sees a challenge to his authority.... I think the people feel confidence in him, they relate to him."

Mr. Strauss credits Yeltsin with skillfully making compromises to broaden his base while continuing the main thrust of reforms. "His strength is that he has been nimble and he has stayed ahead of his critics," the former Democratic Party chairman observes.

Such political skill is evident in this parliament session. The debate on economic reform poses little direct threat to Yeltsin but it also diverts his opponents. Yeltsin's more important objective this session, some observers say, is to gain passage next month of a bill on forming the government. A draft drawn up with allies in the parliament, led by deputy parliament Speaker Sergei Filatov, gives the parliament the power to confirm his nominee for prime minister but yields to the president the authorit y to appoint his Cabinet without their vote. The question of confirming Gaidar's nomination as premier will not come up, if at all, until this bill is dealt with.

Passage of the bill on government in turn would strengthen Yeltsin's bid to gain approval of an extension of his extensive powers to rule and legislate by decree, granted until this December. With those two decisions, Yeltsin would be largely free of parliamentary interference in key policy decisions.

The president has offered the parliament - and its tough chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov - something in return. In a speech last week to regional leaders, Yeltsin pledged not to seek new parliamentary elections until this body completes its term in office, in 1995. He has previously threatened to dissolve this parliament which was elected in 1990 when the Communist Party still was in power. The deal was evident yesterday when Mr. Khasbulatov moved to block any quick no-confidence vote in the government.

While pursuing these goals over the next few months, Yeltsin seems ready to back Gaidar in a return to the tough financial policies which were abandoned in early summer. The crucial moment for Gaidar is likely to come at the end of the year, after a few months of such austerity when not only criticism but popular discontent may rise again.

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