The World From... Moscow

Returning from West, Yeltsin finds the same intractable political woes that Mikhail Gorbachev confronted

THE Russian mass media have given big play to President Boris Yeltsin's recently concluded trip to Britain and North America, saying it paves the way for cooperation instead of confrontation with the West.

But no matter how much the press publicizes Mr. Yeltsin's foreign policy success, the talk on the streets of Moscow continues to focus on domestic economic reform. And Yeltsin is finding that the crowds at home are much more difficult to please than audiences abroad - a problem former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev also encountered.

Yeltsin returned to Moscow on Sunday to find his government's reform program coming under increasing pressure, as Russians see their purchasing power rapidly decline in the wake of last month's price hikes. Prices rose 600 percent in January, the former Communist Party daily Pravda estimated.

A subsistence-level monthly wage is now considered about 1,300 rubles (roughly $13), yet the average Russian worker takes home only about 700 rubles ($7) per month, Russian television reported. A poll published in Pravda on Saturday said 72 percent of those questioned were unhappy with their lives, while 44 percent said they couldn't afford the high prices.

As the ranks of the dissatisfied appear to swell, the mass media have become the weapon of choice in the political battle over whether to continue on the current course. Mr. Yeltsin's second-in-command, Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, joined the fray last week, launching a series of vitriolic attacks on radical reforms in interviews published by the Pravda and Izvestia dailies.

Calling the government a "wrecking team," Mr. Rutskoi said in Pravda that the reforms were impoverishing the nation, adding they could cause the breakup of Russia. "As a result of the activities of some of our 'intellectual giants,' and fathers of Russian 'democracy, said Rutskoi, referring to the government, "we could really end up with hundreds of banana republics."

Russian Central Bank chief Georgy Matyukhin at the same time refuted government assertions that the bank's monetary policy is responsible for skyrocketing inflation.

"Prices always have risen not because the people have a surplus of money, but because they were raised in an administrative way," he said in an interview published Friday in the Sovietskaya Rossiya daily.

Meanwhile, Russian Parliament Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, a leading critic of the government's course, met with economists to discuss curtailing reforms to better protect the population from their harsh effect, Russian television reported Saturday.

Both Yeltsin and Yegor Gaidar, the deputy prime minister in charge of the reforms, staunchly defend their policies. They stressed the importance of the Western visit, for example, saying drastic disarmament will ease the nation's budget difficulties.

But it could take years for Russia to feel the benefits of such a "peace dividend," something that won't be very comforting to people who now think in terms of one day at a time.

Over the next few weeks, the reform debate may move from the press to the street. Already, neo-communist groups and other opponents of price hikes are holding frequent, small scale-demonstrations. Supporters of reform are now trying to mobilize popular support of their own, and a progovernment rally is planned for later this week.

"The biggest danger [to reform] is from the" proletariat said Gleb Yakunin, a Russian Orthodox priest and leading member of the Democratic Russia movement. "Everyone must be prepared to repel the threat of the neo-communists."

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