Yeltsin Critic: Chechnya's `Disastrous' Fallout

Once a Yeltsin confidante, Yegor Gaidar warns the war in Chechnya could harm Russia's economy and lead to a coup

FORMER Russian acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, known as the ``reform czar'' for his Western-style economic policies, was once one of President Boris Yeltsin's closest allies. But when the Russian leader dispatched troops to Chechnya on Dec. 11, Mr. Gaidar emerged as one of his most outspoken critics.

Gaidar now heads Russia's Choice, the largest single faction in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament. But because many Russians associate Gaidar's market policies with the economic hardships they encountered following the Soviet collapse, he has lost some public support.

He talked Jan. 9 to the Monitor about possible consequences of military action in Chechnya, and how they could affect Russia's future. Excerpts follow.

Is a military coup possible?

That's guesswork. War in young, unstable democracies decreases the power of civil institutions and increases the power of military institutions. So, the chances for the coup are much higher now than they were two months ago.

Is the military split?

The military is divided. There are reasonable men in the Army who hate what is happening, and there are a lot of dangerous, stupid fools in the Army. It's difficult to figure out who is in control. A coup could be more or less easy in this type of political instability, when the support of civil institutions is so low. But you would not need the Army to make a coup. You would need just one battalion.

The West says it so far has no contingency plans if Yeltsin falls. Who could be a realistic alternative to Yeltsin?

Let us create a big democratic coalition, including one against the war. Let us try to get public support and win the parliamentary elections. At that time it will be much easier for us to discuss who should be the presidential candidate.

Ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky has supported Yeltsin throughout the conflict. Could he become the next Russian president?

I will not exclude it, but I think it's rather improbable. He's a bit too obvious. He made many promises before the last elections, but fulfilled only a small number of them, if any. So I think it will be very difficult for him to run an efficient campaign, but I will not write him off.

Yeltsin thought he could subdue Chechnya in just a few days. How could he make such a grave political miscalculation?

It would be much better, of course, to ask Mr. President. There were times when I had perfect knowledge of what the president was thinking. But now I would be one of the thousands of political scientists looking through the window and trying to guess what Yeltsin is really thinking.

When was the last time you had contact with Yeltsin?

We met and discussed certain issues in early November. Since then I have telephoned him, and he knows that I would like to meet him. I have written him a few letters, some of them personal. But I have received no answer.

Has Yeltsin changed, or is he just finally showing his true colors?

For me, the Yeltsin who was trying to destroy Communist power, who was trying to build Russian democracy and fight for freedom of speech, for free and fair elections, trying to open the path of the market economy, was the Yeltsin promoting a policy I could support. The Yeltsin who is starting a war in the Caucasus, who is making decisions incompatible with any understanding of democracy, is promoting another policy.

Do you have any future in Yeltsin's government?

Of course, I could still work with Yeltsin. We had a very good relationship, and at times I was able to influence him, especially in the economic field. But the situation changed drastically during the last month and a half. I tried to support Yeltsin, I used all possibilities to influence policy, but there are limits.

Yeltsin's chief bodyguard, Alexander Korzhakov, is rumored to be the man behind Yeltsin's decisions. What influence does he really have?

He is loyal to Yeltsin. But all these rumors in the last month and a half were exaggerations. I know Yeltsin is his personal friend, but it is very dangerous to try to elaborate who are the demons behind everything. That is not the case.

What will happen if Grozny is eventually ``captured''?

Grozny will be captured, be destroyed. Some kind of temporary government will be installed there. But that will not stop the war, it will only change the methods of the war.

We will have a long-term guerrilla war and huge terrorist operations in Chechnya, maybe in [neighboring] Ingushetia and probably in the Chechen part of Dagestan. That means that we will have to continue the war with Chechnya, feed Chechnya, and try to rebuild Chechnya at the same time.

How has the conflict affected Russia's economy?

If you are in a war you have to pay for the war, and that is expensive. It will be difficult for the budget and market economic policies for 1995 as put forth by the government to succeed.

It will mean high inflation, an inability to create the basis for private investment and private savings, and a strong incentive for an increased state regulation of the economy, which means increased corruption. The effects on the Russian economy, in any scenario, will be harmful, and in some cases disastrous.

Has it affected the Commonwealth of Independent States as well?

It's clear that in five years' time we would have had an arrangement similar to the European Union on the territory of the former Soviet Union, except for the Baltic states. Now that looks highly improbable. The Chechen conflict has been a great blow to the CIS countries, both economically and politically.

Has the Chechen conflict done irreparable damage to Russian democracy?

In the past three years we have tried to change the public's opinion about Russia. It was important for me to once again live in a country which I could be proud of, for instance after [the failed hard-line coup in] August 1991. But now there are very serious, long-term problems, which will influence cooperation and human contacts between Russia and the stable democracies.

Some have criticized Western democracies for taking too long to condemn the use of force in Chechnya. Is the West at all to blame?

It's easy to always blame the West for everything. But it was evident from the beginning that everyone hoped the Chechen conflict would be of short duration. The Western authorities needed time to understand the practical sides of the issue. I would not really like to blame the West.

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