Russians Heartened By Signs of Stability, Despite MMM Collapse

THE recently privatized Yeliseyevsky food store on Moscow's main shopping street is overflowing with imported delicacies. Costly Hungarian salami and Dutch cheese crowd its ornate shelves, which empty out as often as plastic crates of Coca-Cola.

Down the road, women dressed in the latest designer fashions ignore the BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes roaring by as they purchase cosmetics from exclusive shops such as Christian Dior and Yves Rocher. Two blocks away, Christian evangelists and Hare Krishnas compete for conversions in Red Square.

Is Russia finally becoming ``civilized''? Despite the weekend collapse of MMM, Russia's largest investment fund, some analysts say Moscow is finally - albeit slowly - catching up with the West. After four decades of cold- war stagnation, they say, Russia is on its way to achieving stability - economically and politically.

``Recent months have been the most peaceful from the political point of view since the start of reforms,'' President Boris Yeltsin announced recently. ``This is how it will continue.''

But others, holding up the October 1993 uprising as an example, warn that equilibrium is temporary. Russia may finally have a responsible parliament and a working Constitution, they say, but the gap between rich and poor is widening. Crime and corruption are rampant, and the preponderance of disgruntled Communists, nationalists, and power-hungry mafia gangs means a backslide could be inevitable.

``I don't think there will be violence. I see no riots resulting from MMM's collapse,'' says Alexander Livshits, head of Mr. Yeltsin's team of economic experts. ``There are no problems in the country right now that could lead to events like we had in October.''

Russia is showing ``real signs of financial stability,'' Mr. Livshits says. Inflation dropped to 5 percent in June. An estimated 70 percent of formerly state-owned enterprises have been privatized. The ruble is on its way to convertibility, and citizens are accumulating savings. Adopting the 1994 budget paved the way for a $1.5 billion International Monetary Fund loan.

Other economic indicators, however, are less positive. Production declined one-quarter from last year, and 12 million people are forecasted to be unemployed by 1995. ``The most important thing we need now is to stimulate activity and increase investment from abroad,'' Livshits says.

But foreign investment reached only $1 billion last year because of high political risk, no infrastructure, and shaky laws. And an estimated $1 billion monthly leaves Russia for offshore bank accounts and Paris pied-a-terres.

``Russia is becoming more Western,'' admits Kate Whyte, project officer for the British Know-How Fund, a technical assistance program. ``But at the same time it is taking the most trivial things from the West, like designer clothes and BMWs.''

The foreign-policy front appears rosier, with the image of the Russian bear rapidly fading. Despite Kremlin insistence on veto power over NATO decisions, Russia signed Partnership for Peace and European Union cooperation agreements. Last month, Yeltsin formally attended political consultations at the G-7 summit in Naples, Italy.

More recently, Russia agreed to withdraw its troops from Estonia and said it would support the West if it imposed sanctions against the Bosnian Serbs. Russia also agreed to hold the first joint Russian-United States Army maneuvers this September at the Totsk range in the southern Urals, although nationalists still oppose the move. The tilt, some observers say, may be thanks to the West tacitly accepting Russia's self-proclaimed role as arbiter in the former Soviet republics.

The domestic front also appears peaceful, although some say Yeltsin's most vociferous opponents are just lying in wait until the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, reconvenes this fall.

Alexander Rutskoi, Russia's former vice president who led the October uprising, is preparing - quietly - for presidential elections, scheduled for 1996. Ruslan Khasbulatov, another October leader, has returned to teaching. In a desperate attempt to boost his falling ratings, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the notorious bad boy of Russian politics, is on a two-month ``pilgrimage'' throughout Russia.

FOR now, October seems only a bitter memory. But Vitaly Tretyakov, editor in chief of the liberal Nezavisimaya Gazeta, warns that stability is temporary, and that dangerous ``trench warfare'' is occurring among Yeltsin and his closest advisers. ``If this war doesn't lead to a new consensus, to a new balance of forces that will more or less suit all the warring sides, then we will have a new crisis by year's end, and this latent `under the carpet' struggle will acquire manifest forms,'' Mr. Tretyakov says.

``Right now, nobody has enough strength to take power and nobody wants to claim power,'' echoes Liliya Shevtsova of the Institute of International Economic and Political Studies. ``But wise people are waiting for the right moment, which they believe will come when Russia's economy worsens.''

But Mikhail Poltoranin, head of the Duma Informational Policy Committee, warns that the government could soon be overtaken by those who have profited most from reform - Russia's nouveau riche. ``This precarious equilibrium that is being preserved now is, in fact, misleading,'' he told the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily.

A poll conducted by the Izvestia newspaper showed most Russians face the future with equanimity. ``In short, social stability began after a growth of tension in the beginning of the `90s,'' Izvestia commented Friday. ``People are becoming accustomed to a new way of life.''

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