Rift Grows Among Reformers After Setback in Russian Vote

Speculation rises that Yeltsin will oust reformist ministers

TENSIONS within the Russian government between those who favor radical economic reforms and those urging a more conservative course burst into the open over the weekend.

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, an advocate of a more gradual reform path, strongly criticized the architects of Russia's market reforms as being responsible for the election victory of extreme nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the Dec. 12 parliamentary vote.

``We should face the truth and admit that many people voted against the hardships and mistakes of the current reforms, rather than for any specific [political] platform,'' Mr. Chernomyrdin told the trade union daily Trud on Saturday.

Chernomyrdin specifically went after the two key reformers, Vice Premier Yegor Gaidar, leader of the pro-reform Russia's Choice bloc, and Anatoly Chubais, the minister in charge of Russia's highly successful privatization effort.

``The election defeat is a personal evaluation of Gaidar as the person responsible for the economy ministry,'' Chernomyrdin said. ``The same goes for Chubais.''

The statements increased speculation that a widely anticipated reshuffle of the government could lead to the ouster of some of the reformist ministers. President Boris Yeltsin plans to hold a press conference later this week where it is believed he will deliver for the first time his reaction to the election results and will announce changes in the government.

Mr. Yeltsin has given very little indication of how he will swing in this battle. He has tolerated what has been a de facto coalition government, with a Cabinet of both radical reformers and moderates, for at least a year. He may choose to continue on this path, while avoiding to make a definitive choice.

But there are clear signs that even if there is a dramatic purge of government personnel, a policy shift is already underway. Chernomyrdin and his allies are now calling for abandoning any further efforts to bring down Russia's inflation rate, currently running at 16 percent a month, and instead moving to try to boost production and investment.

``There are no plans for strong measures in this direction,'' Chernomyrdin said of the tough financial policy pursued by Finance Minister Boris Fyodorov. ``Now investment and production rise are becoming the main issues. These are ... where the key emphasis of future reforms will lie.''

Chernomyrdin also seeks to slow down the rapid privatization of large state-run industries. But he combines this with a pledge to open the country to foreign investment and to put government money into creating new industries, rather than ``keep hopeless enterprises afloat.''

In practice, however, the huge government bureaucracy, backed by the Central Bank, has been unable to make such hard choices, pumping subsidies into a wide range of factories and collective farms.

``The government should not give up the financial stabilization policy,'' Mr. Fyodorov told Rossiiskiye Vesti, a daily newspaper, on Saturday.

Now, however, the more conservative wing of the government clearly feels vindicated by the success of antireform parties, which together won more than half the vote in the elections.

``We have to draw a lesson from the election results and apparently look more attentively at Zhirinovsky's, [Communist Party leader Gennady] Zyuganov's and other opponents' slogans, which reflect a certain mood...,'' Vice Premier Oleg Soskovets, a key Chernomyrdin ally, told Rossiiskiye Vesti on Dec. 17.

Such thinking has found an echo in the voices of US President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore Jr., who last week sought to play down the election results as a ``protest vote'' against harsh economic reforms. Both men criticized the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international agencies for imposing overly tough conditions of financial austerity in exchange for Western aid.

That line of attack is curiously similar to that of Russian politicians such as Communist leader Zyuganov who, in his first post-election press conference on Dec. 14, assailed Mr. Gaidar's reformers for following the prescripts of the IMF.

``Gaidar has no economic program of his own,'' Mr. Soskovets said, ``his program is the 20-year-old IMF program that has been implemented in about 20 developing countries.''

Mr. Zyuganov's party, and its allies, now appear to hold the balance of power in the parliament between the radical reformers on one side and Mr. Zhirinovsky on the other. At a reception for Mr. Gore last Thursday night, Chernomyrdin and Zyuganov were observed by reporters engaged in a deep and extended, and apparently friendly, conversation.

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