Boris Yeltsin celebrated the first anniversary of his reign in the mood of a satisfied yet rather puzzled survivor (“we jumped into the river not knowing how to swim…but we didn’t drown”). His surprise is not really surprising. In a country in which production has slumped, prices have rocketed and real wages have dropped dramatically, Mikhail Gorbachev’s successors must feel grateful that, though their popularity too has declined, they have not been swept aside. Bewildered, and deprived of a genuine alternative, the Russian people have so far shown an extraordinary forbearance. But what next?
Shortly before the anniversary, Rossiyskie Vesti published a governmental “program for deepening economic reforms,” a summary designed for Parliament and the general public covering the period to 1996. As a projection of Russian production it is not worth a penny. It promises to eliminate the budget deficit, to halt inflation and to create jobs, not just eliminate them. It clams that by the end of that period Russian living standards will be higher than those prevailing in Eastern Europe–pious hopes not backed by any calculations. But as a document revealing the social plans and ambitions of Yegor Gaidar, the acting Prime Minister, and the economic team of fervent marketeers surrounding him, it is illuminating. This is the manifesto of a clique hoping to cling to office as spokespersons and vanguard of a capitalist class in the making.
The grabbing of what used to be called, inaccurately, collective property is the magic cure for all the country’s ills. Privatization is described as “the heart of the economic reform” for political reasons as well. The avowed purpose is “the formation of a broad stratum of property owners” and the strengthening of “the entrepreneurs as a social stratum with specific interests in determining the basic directions of economic policy.” The worshipers of the International Monetary Fund are clearly in search of followers, of a constituency.
On paper, at least, they hope to build capitalism at breakneck speed. Already this year many enterprises are supposed to become joint-stock companies, and vouchers or checks to buy shares in these companies are to be distributed to every citizen. By the end of next year about 80-90 percent of the retail trade should be in private hands and some 30 percent of the capital in the large and medium-size firms. By 1996, even in the latter sector more than 80 percent is expected to be privately owned, at which point Russia would have no more public property than most countries of Western Europe.
Nor is the takeover to be limited to trade and industry. Although Russia’s rural population seems to be showing little enthusiasm, the government is determined to “restructure the agrarian sector on the basis of the private ownership of land.” Therefore, it proposes to remove any restrictions on the purchase, sale and mortgaging of that land. The plan advocates the breakup of state and collective farms and the predominance of private capital in the food processing industry. Simultaneously, the government intends to start dismantling the welfare state, or what is left of it. In all the sections dealing with social policy there is a recurring refrain about the virtues of commercialization. The preference for private housing was to be expected, but the project provides a key function in the health service for insurance companies and pleads for “the creation of conditions for the development of nonstate educational institutions.” Naturally, the despised state will be badly needed to deal with the new scourge of unemployment, but its role, wherever possible, is to be reduced to a minimum. In their imaginary quest for deregulation, the Thatcherite authors of this document are trying to catch up–not with Western Europe but with the American model in its most Reaganite version.