Something for Everyone

Alas, there was no clarification. The speech is noteworthy not for what Yeltsin said but for what he did not say. On virtually all major issues of foreign and domestic policy the President spoke in generalities, avoiding specific policy proposals.

The disappointment is all the more profound because Yeltsin provided a sharp and often biting critique of the current situation. At times what he was saying sounded as if it were coming from the ranks of the opposition, be it democrats or nationalists.

Indeed Yegor Gaidar and Boris Fyodorov would agree wholeheartedly that handing out cheap state credits to industrial giants of the Communist era is bad policy. They would also agree that it is imperative to contain inflation.

All political parties would agree that radical measures are needed to fight crime. All political parties would agree that Russian culture and education need state support and that the hemorrhaging of the bureaucracy has surpassed all reasonable needs.

Supporters of ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky would certainly welcome Yeltsin's strongly worded message to NATO not to increase its membership. Thus the speech had something for everyone.

It is hard to disagree that the task of the day is to fight bureaucratization and corruption in the government, to fight inflation and crime, to support science and culture, to support the needy and to restructure industry. But Yeltsin's speech is mostly a list of criticisms and good wishes.

The main question is: How can all this be done? What was expected of the president is that he provide answers as to what concrete measures he is going to propose. There were none.

When one goes from generalities to specifics, one encounters real political problems, conflicts of interests and differences among political parties. It is here that the head of state could play a role. Take curbing inflation. It is not enough to say that it should be controlled. One has to say how, through what kind of economic policy. Fyodorov and Gaidar have one approach, Chernomyrdin another.

Yeltsin favors the continuation of market reforms and reasonable regulation of industry. To say this is to say little. If there is a message in this speech it is Yeltsin's attempt to stay above parties and to distance himself from his own government. After all, someone has to be responsible for the hand-outs, cheap credits and corruption.

What is striking in Yeltsin's speech is the absence of any reference to many burning issues. He spoke in front of the parliament, but he did not address the parliament. There was not a word about the president's relations with the parliament or its amnesty vote. There was no mention of the new consultative council under the president which had been recently created. There was not a word about the judicial chamber in the president's office and its role. There was no mention of what is referred to as the apparatus of the president. These institutions are, strictly speaking, unconstitutional. If the president believes they are constitutional, he has to at least explain their purpose and prerogatives to the parliament.

Yeltsin said nothing about the political party that he announced the creation of back in January. Does he still intend to form his own party? If not, what political parties or factions in the parliament does he intend to rely upon? The speech had no answers to that question as well.

One has to conclude that the speech's main message is the president's intention to stay above all institutions, including his own government and parties. This fits into the main outline of his political course after the December elections. He has distanced himself from the radical reformers like Gaidar and Fyodorov, now he is distancing himself from credit-givers like Chernomyrdin. He has been trying to disregard the Duma and make himself as independent from it as possible.

He has been appeasing the nationalists by increased rhetoric on Russian national interests, and a confrontational posture vis-a-vis NATO. Yeltsin has been trying to be a little bit of a market reformer and a little bit of an imperialist. He has been trying to please all parties to some extent and not depend on any.

Clearly Yeltsin's intention is to change his image from a populist dynamic radical reformer to a wise centrist statesman, the father of the nation who alone is in the position to reconcile all the divergent political currents in crisis-torn Russia. The danger here is that the president runs the risk of alienating all interest groups and institutions and losing the good will of Western allies. The democrats may come to the conclusion that the president is too authoritarian to support him any longer and the nationalists may find him not nationalist enough.

The Western leaders may find Russia's claim to have a veto power over the destiny of Poland and/or other Central European country unacceptable. Moreover, the common people in Russia may reach new heights of frustration if the continuing collapse of the economy is not halted. In the end the president runs the risk of being abandoned by all.

Vladimir Brovkin is Associate Professor of History at Harvard University. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.