President Clinton recently paid a visit to a fallen czar. The blundering Yeltsin may be clinging to his throne, but his effective reign came to a close on August 17, a date to remember. The collapse of the ruble and the defaulting on debt payments symbolically mark the end of a period of seven years of calamity leading to the ruin of the country’s economy and the terrible impoverishment of the bulk of the population. It was good on this occasion that Clinton was in the limelight with Yeltsin because the Western powers in general, and the American presidency in particular, share the blame, having all along given their blessing to the policies that brought about the disaster. The trouble is that the West’s financial institutions seem to have learned nothing from the bitter experience. While the battered Yeltsin is wondering how best to survive or to make a safe exit–his last-minute refusal to reduce the exorbitant presidential powers may explain why the pact with the opposition collapsed on the eve of Clinton’s arrival–Western leaders urge him to stick to the outmoded script. For this purpose, they and their scribblers must rewrite history to whitewash the “democratic reformers.” It is important, therefore, to set the record straight.
The financial failure is the handiwork of the “democrats” or so-called radical reformers, not of the apparatchiks. If Viktor Chernomyrdin, the ex-manager of mighty Gazprom, was appointed Prime Minister at the end of 1992, it was because the shock-therapist Yegor Gaidar had rendered living conditions unbearable; and if he was recalled by Yeltsin now, it was because the “young reformers,” headed by Sergei Kiriyenko, had made a terrible mess. True, Chernomyrdin, Prime Minister for more than five years, is far from innocent. But throughout his term he was under close supervision of a keeper of financial orthodoxy–most of the time that darling of the Western establishment, Anatoly Chubais. The other clever attempt is to shift responsibility for the troubles onto the financier Boris Berezovsky and his fellow profiteers. But who made it possible for them to make their millions? Our Chubais again, who as minister in charge presided over the biggest daylight robbery of the century, Russia’s privatization. And who rejoiced when the Sinister Seven oligarchs, with his help, used their ill-gotten gains and their mastery of the media to twist the 1996 presidential election in Yeltsin’s favor?
Clinton must take his knocks for the bankruptcy. Having at the beginning of his first term drawn the now obviously wrong conclusion that Yeltsin was the best bet to keep Russia safe for capitalism, he acted accordingly. Our man in Moscow could do no wrong. When Yeltsin shelled Parliament in 1993, we turned a blind eye. When he won a corrupt election, Clinton hailed it as “a triumph for democracy.” When Yeltsin’s “reformers” tried to balance the budget by delaying payment of salaries to millions of workers, our experts praised their efforts to fight inflation. And so Russia–and we–traveled, blindly and smugly, to disaster.
The problem throughout was that the people we supported were hated by ordinary Russians. With an Orwellian sense of humor, we called “democrats” those who could never win an open election. Indeed, Yeltsin has a real dilemma. If he does not reach a deal with the opposition, including the Communists, and renominates Chernomyrdin (rejected on August 31 by 253 deputies versus 94) a second and third time with the same lack of success, he is entitled by the Constitution to dissolve the Duma and stage a new election but is most likely to get an even more hostile assembly. The same question of popularity affects the issue of Yeltsin’s succession And the presidential poll, scheduled for the year 2000 and already dominating the minds of politicians. The only potential candidates with a real following at present are those who have no open link with the rulers: the Communist Gennady Zyuganov and the bluff general Aleksandr Lebed, waiting for his hour in distant Krasnoyarsk; maybe the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkox in a pinch. Anybody with a Yeltsin connection cannot get into double digits in the polls, and it is highly doubtful that pots and pots of money and full control of the media would do the trick a second time. During his two-day visit to Moscow Clinton, intervening blatantly in domestic politics, lectured the Russians time and again on the imperative need to continue with the old policies.
Outsiders may seek consolation in the thought that he who pays the piper has at least a strong influence on the score. It is not clear whether the IMF will give Moscow the second slice of $4.3 billion in mid-September, but the refrain played in Washington, London, Paris and Bonn is exactly the same: We are ready to keep on helping the Russians, if they get on with the reforms. Which reforms? Anybody in his senses in Moscow understands that in the tragic condition of its economy what the country must do is relaunch production. For this, industry needs some spur from the state and some degree of international protection. To stick with the old policy is to precipitate a social explosion.
On this occasion, the sternest censor of Russia’s would-be heretics was Michel Camdessus, managing director of the IMF. This is understandable. Although the $22.6 billion package sponsored by the fund proved to be too little too late, its officials did not think the Russians would dare, or be forced, to suspend payments. The news was not only a shock. It was a dangerous precedent. The message might travel from Moscow to Mexico City and from Seoul to Sã Paulo. What if people ceased to believe that to spread unemployment by the millions and poverty by tens of millions is the road to economic salvation? As currencies crash and stocks tumble, as the bubble bursts on Wall Street, the moneybags must begin to wonder whether the fall of the ruble does not foreshadow something more dramatic: the bankruptcy of the system as a whole.