RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin has told his countrymen to enjoy their August vacations without fear of a repeat of last year's hard-line coup attempt. But he offered little hope that the precipitous decline in living standards that has accompanied Russia's reform policies will turn around before the end of the year at the earliest.
"I cannot say that they will return from their vacations and find paradise here," the president said in an interview with Russian reporters broadcast on Wednesday night. "But I can say that there will be no putsch. Nor will there be any major interethnic conflicts, which Russia, thank God, has so far avoided."
Mr. Yeltsin's carefully phrased optimism about preserving peace has gained some credibility in recent days with the progress of Russian-led peace efforts in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova.
The deployment of a joint Russian-Georgian peacekeeping force earlier this week in the separatist Georgian region of South Ossetia has temporarily halted fighting there. The South Ossetians are fighting to secede from Georgia and join North Ossetia, which is part of Russia.
Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoi returned as well from talks in Moldova Wednesday, hopeful for an early similar agreement to separate the warring forces of the Romanian majority and Russian separatists in the would-be Dniester republic.
Russian nationalists and former Communists have been pressing Yeltsin to militarily defend Russians living in other Republics and peoples, such as the Ossetians, traditionally dependent on Russian protection. But the peacekeeping agreements are a victory for voices of moderation in the Yeltsin government.
Yesterday foreign and defense ministers of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the loose confederation of 11 former Soviet republics, agreed to form a permanent peacekeeping force, modeled on the United Nations' "blue helmets" to respond to ethnic conflicts that have sprung up in the ruins of the Soviet empire.
The elite Russian paratroopers and Georgian National Guard units, wearing helmets ringed with a blue stripe, that were deployed Tuesday are considered a model for such forces, even though Georgia is not a commonwealth member. But the early success in separating combatants cannot conceal the fragility of the arrangement struck last month between Yeltsin and Georgian leader and former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.
In a meeting with the Georgian leadership, Mr. Shevardnadze called the force "a far from ideal measure," according to Interfax news agency. "It would be better to rely in this case on United Nations peace-keeping forces, but that's impossible now," he said.
Yeltsin devoted a good deal of the 90-minute interview to reporting on his talks in Munich last week with leaders of the Group of Seven (G-7) leading industrial nations. The Russian leader defended himself from criticism by Russian nationalists and Communists that he had `sold out' to the West or accepted onerous conditions from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in return for a $24 million Western aid package.
RUSSIA was not in Munich as a supplicant, Yeltsin insisted, but as a superpower seeking to define a post-cold-war order. "Our relations should be based not on fear, but on equal partnership," he said.
Yeltsin responded to criticism heard increasingly here that Russian foreign policy is exclusively "pro-Western" in orientation. Russia had to start by reaching major arms deals with its former Western foes, he explained. Now, having settled these problems, "we will move consistently to the East," he added, developing closer ties with countries such as China, Iran, Turkey, Japan, India and Korea.
"In Munich my aim was to declare that Russia will, in spite of everything, overcome its difficulties," Yeltsin said. "But if aid is accorded it will be less painful for the people and maybe even less risky."
Yeltsin criticized the IMF for trying to impose inappropriate classical formulas that have been used in other countries. "Russia is unique and the reforms are unique," he said. "For 74 years Russians didn't actually know what private property and entrepreneurship are, what a market economy means."
The Russian leader said he turned back IMF pressure to impose tougher austerity measures, including a wage freeze and freeing state-subsidized prices on fuel and energy, steps he fears could trigger mass unrest here.
Several months ago, the confidence of the population in his leadership and reforms was not visibly exhausted, Yeltsin said. But at Munich "I warned [the G-7] that ... now this horizon is visible. If we now make sharp moves which lead to a further deterioration of the people's life, the people may not be able to endure them."
Still, no one knows how far off the "horizon" of a Russian uprising may lie. And despite his confident predictions to Russian vacationers, Yeltsin revealed that unlike Mikhail Gorbachev, he has no plans to wander far from the Kremlin walls this August.