All Eyes Turn to Boris Yeltsin

Will Russia's president back his reformist Cabinet members or put brakes on reform?

THE reformers within the Russian government have heard the voice of the people. Now they are waiting to hear the verdict that most counts now - Boris Yeltsin's.

The parliamentary elections last Sunday delivered a clear majority of votes for the parties that oppose the policy of rapid transition to a market economy that has been the hallmark of the last two years of Russia's reformist government. But the voters also approved a constitution that gives President Yeltsin great powers, including the right to nominate the head of the government and to legislate by decree.

The question now on the minds of many in the reform camp is whether the president will use those powers to further reforms, or as some around him now want, to slow them down.

``Nobody knows the real feelings of the president,'' says Sergei Blagovolin, of the executive committee of Russia's Choice, the leading reform group led by Vice Premier Yegor Gaidar.

On Tuesday night, the Russia's Choice leadership met to consider the implications of their electoral disaster, in which the reformers were badly outpaced by extreme nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his Liberal Democratic Party. They were pondering not only the ``mistakes'' of their campaign but the future of the current Russian government, which includes eight Cabinet members from their party.

``We believe that the entry of a fascist group into the Russian parliament poses a challenge to democracy to which two responses are possible,'' Mr. Gaidar said after the meeting. ``One is a more consistent reform policy and its support by creating a broad democratic coalition. The other is revision of the present course to make it less consistent. This is up to the president to decide.''

So far the president has been essentially silent, save for issuing a brief written statement celebrating passage of the constitution. ``He has not decided what to do and how to play this situation,'' comments Denis Kiselyov, an economist and analyst at the Moscow office of the World Bank. ``He is still very close with Gaidar and talking with him alot.''

Yeltsin's chief of staff, Sergei Filatov, came to the Russia's Choice meeting and ``tried to convince us the president is eager to go ahead and continue the same line,'' Mr. Blagovolin says.

Russia's Choice is seeking a parliamentary alliance with other reform groups, including the bloc led by rival reform economist Grigory Yavlinsky, Russian Unity and Concord led by Vice Premier Sergei Shakhrai, and even critics such as the Democratic Party of Russia of Nikolai Travkin. But according to Blagovolin, Russia's Choice has already concluded that they will fall short of a majority in the State Duma, the lower house of the parliament.

Demands for removal of the Gaidar reformers are growing since the Sunday vote. Only on this issue are the various antireform parties united, with the Communists, the Agrarian Party, and Mr. Zhirinovsky's party all calling for this.

Politicians and commentators argue that the election results are a repudiation of the ``shock therapy'' policies of Gaidar, of rapid market reforms and tough austerity measures to control inflation, even at the cost of a lowering of living standards and unemployment. ``By its radical moves in the economy, Russia's Choice strengthened the social base for Zhirinovsky,'' Vice Premier Shakhrai told Interfax news agency yesterday.

Gaidar and his supporters contend, as they have all along, that the problem with the reforms was not that they were too fast but too slow, that inconsistency in pursuit of tough anti-inflation measures meant that the reforms never actually had a chance. They put most of the blame on the Central Bank, which under chairman Viktor Gerashchenko pumped money to bankrupt state-run industries and to former Soviet republics.

``There's hardly been any shock therapy in Russia,'' says Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist who advises the Russian government. ``The government never had any control over monetary policy.... What we are seeing is really that you have to go much faster.''

AT a government meeting held on Monday, the day after the election, the general consensus was that the poor showing meant that reforms need to be pursued more effectively, Mr. Aslund reports. He says Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin is now more inclined to accept the sacking of Central Bank head Gerashchenko.

But Aslund is also highly critical of Gaidar and Russia's Choice for failing to aggressively defend liberal policies during the election campaigns, and instead trying to appease critics. ``No one stood up and fought for liberal policies,'' says Aslund, ``therefore liberals didn't bother to vote.''

Talk of a government reshuffle abounds, mostly from various presidential aides. The most widespread rumor suggests replacing Gaidar with Mr. Yavlinsky. But there is no indication yet that the president would seek the resignation of Gaidar and his close allies.

``The new parliament will demand a change of government,'' commented Yeltsin aide Mikhail Poltoranin. ``And the president would only like to slightly cleanse this government.''

The man most likely to stay in place is Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, the former boss of the Soviet gas industry whose views are considered far more conservative than those of the free market liberals. ``The government's composition will be changed somewhat,'' Chernomyrdin told Rossiiskiye Vesti on Dec. 15. ``But this isn't linked to elections - it's life.''

The wild card in all these calculations is the new star of Russian politics, Zhirinovsky. Although he is demanding removal of the Gaidar team, his main aim seems to be to force Yeltsin to consult him and seek his support. ``He will now try to improve his legitimacy,'' says Russia's Choice official Blagovolin.

Already there are calls for Zhirinovsky's party to be included in a Cabinet. ``Participation of the Liberal Democratic Party is imperative,'' writes Vladimir Tanin in Rabochaya Tribuna on Dec. 15.

There are concerns in some circles, including Russia's Choice, that Yeltsin might fall into Zhirinovsky's trap, granting him a role they think he should be denied. But Aslund insists Yeltsin will not take the bait: ``It's so obvious now that no one in his right sense will do such a deal.''

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