Yeltsin and Russia: Two Views

Radio Liberty and the Voice of America recently acquainted Russian listeners with Peter Reddaway’s article, “Russia on the Brink?” [NYR, January 28]. The eschatological title and its general tone are not appropriate to the real situation in the country. The author knows Russia very well, but he has experienced the same psychological change that occurs when people who live permanently in Moscow find themselves abroad for a length of time. Isolated from daily life, when information is drawn from the surrounding atmosphere, and forced to rely on newspapers, radio, and television, they very quickly—sometimes in a matter of days—begin to perceive everything hyperbolically, more acutely and even more tragically than they would if they were living at home. I know this from my own experience. In view of recent events, no one could say that everything is all right in Russia. But still, the future is not as black as it seems to Reddaway. And the reason for today’s difficulties does not lie in the errors on Yeltsin’s part that Reddaway describes or, at least, they alone did not create the problems.

Listing a series of Yeltsin’s critical errors over the last year, Reddaway names the first as the shock therapy approach to economic reform, which sharply lowered the standard of living for the majority of the population. He considers the second error to be Yeltsin’s lack of his own party, on which he could rely. Then come the Russian President’s naive (in the author’s estimation) hope for aid from the West, the fact that he did not go far enough in seeking compromise with the Civic Union (Volsky’s party), and Yeltsin’s statement, made long ago, that he did not plan to run for a second term.

And indeed these actions do appear at first glance to be mistakes that led to a sharp fall in the President’s popularity ratings and to his being forced to sacrifice Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar and embark on a series of populist measures, some of which were initiated by the Congress. These include cancellation of debts for many state enterprises, colossal subsidies in some branches of industry, a significant rise in pensions, and higher salaries in the state sector. These steps destroyed the first signs of monetary stabilization that began to appear under Gaidar and brought the country close to hyperinflation.

But did Yeltsin have a real alternative? I don’t think so. The shock could have been eased by timely passage of laws on property, on private ownership of land, and on privatization. But the Fifth Congress of People’s Deputies in October 1991, to which Yeltsin presented his economic program, did not pass such laws; nor were they passed at the Sixth or Seventh Congresses. If we accept the logic of waiting for Parliament, Yeltsin could not have embarked on his reforms to this day. In these conditions, he took a decision that was extremely bold, knowing that it could lead to his losing not only popularity but power. And the fact that…

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