Russian Ruble Crisis Widens Cabinet Rift

As the battle over economic reforms picks up steam, Moscow works with neighbors to halt fighting on Tajik-Afghan border

THE feuding over the future of market reforms is intensifying in the Russian capital, while the government is making a concerted effort to avoid a fight in the Central Asian state of Tajikistan.

Not only does President Boris Yeltsin's administration continue to spar with the conservative-dominated Parliament over privatization and other economic reforms. But now new verbal battle fronts have appeared, as Mr. Yeltsin's Cabinet members have begun publicly bickering among themselves, and Russia's Central Bank has sniped at the legislature over fiscal policy.

Yeltsin's failure over the past few weeks to express his views on reform publicly and clearly is helping to fuel the feuds, some political observers say. The absence of strong guidance from Yeltsin, the experts add, encourages conservatives to press for the ouster of Western-oriented reformers from the government.

"Events are starting to evolve so fast that a surprise can be expected almost any day," wrote commentator Igor Sichka in the Novaya Yezhednevnaya Gazeta daily. "The opposition is striving to drive the government to resign."

Presidential spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov plays down the significance of Yeltsin's silence, saying the president's pro-reform positions are well known. "The president, like any other politician, has a right to remain silent on certain topics," Mr. Kostikov told the Moskovsky Komsomolets daily Saturday.

At the center of the Cabinet scuffle is Finance Minister Boris Fyodorov, the government's foremost proponent of Western-style reforms.

Mr. Fyodorov's harsh criticism of the Central Bank's monetary reform last month has drawn the wrath of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who has generally supported the bank's move to withdraw pre-1993 money from circulation.

Mr. Chernomyrdin, making a report on a three-year reform plan at a Friday Cabinet meeting, stressed the need for consensus. He then followed with a blistering attack on Fyodorov, saying any minister who deviated from the government's line would have to find another job.

HE Chernomyrdin reform blueprint calls for tight fiscal policies for the remainder of 1993 into mid-1994 to control inflation and stabilize the ruble. The plan's second stage - from mid-1994 through 1995, would accelerate investment and privatization and tackle a ballooning budget deficit. At that point Russia's recovery would begin in earnest. If all goes well, Chernomyrdin concluded, Russia's economy could expand by up to 5 percent annually by the end of the century.

Some prominent politicians, however, say the plan contains discrepancies that may make it hard to realize. For example, even though Chernomyrdin repeated the government's tight money mantra, he said the anti-inflation campaign would be waged without "shock therapy" methods.

"My impression is that different parts were written by different people who have different views on reforms," says Alexander Pochinok, chairman of Parliament's Tax, Budget, and Prices Committee.

Also muddling the reform effort is a dispute between the president and parliament over privatization.

On Friday, the legislature rejected for the second time a presidential decree aimed at speeding up the privatization program, a main building block for reforms.

The dispute is now headed to Russia's Constitutional Court, which must decide which branch of power has the right to regulate the privatization pace.

In addition, Central Bank Chairman Viktor Gerashchenko assailed the legislature for passing a 1993 budget that would allow for a 23-trillion ruble ($23 billion) deficit. That figure, roughly 25 percent of the gross national product, is two times higher than government deficit targets. Parliament, meanwhile, sought to avoid confrontation with the bank, declining to follow through on previous threats to pass a resolution reversing the currency reform.

While Russia's domestic political situation becomes more turbulent, Russian diplo- mats seem determined to find a peaceful settlement to the Tajik civil war, which pits the hard-line government against Muslim guerrillas who receive backing from neighboring Afghanistan.

At a Friday summit in Moscow, the leaders of the former Soviet Central Asian republics of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, along with Russia, vowed to collectively defend the Tajik-Afghan border, scene of fierce border clashes in recent weeks.

The leaders also appealed for United Nations' help in achieving a political settlement.

But perhaps the most important development was a pledge by Tajik leaders to open negotiations with their Islamic opponents. The hard-line government had resisted such a dialogue in the past, saying it would not hold talks with "executioners who have butchered their own people."

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