Yeltsin Veers Off Course

President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin have embarked upon a new course for Russia, a course fraught with perils for the president, the country and the world.

In domestic policy this course means a resolute "no" to the continuation of shock therapy. The tight monetarist policies of Yegor Gaidar and Boris Fyodorov have been abandoned in favor of cheap credits to nearly bankrupt industrial giants of the communist era. Controlling inflation has been abandoned in favor of bailing out Belarus at the cost of more than 1 trillion rubles.

In foreign policy, there is increased emphasis on the economic integration of the countries that make up the Commonwealth of Independent States, threats against Latvia, and imperial talk on the part of Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev about Russia's historic national interests in the Baltics.

These shifts in policy have provoked a government crisis, the departure of Gaidar and Fyodorov, panic on the money markets and a dramatic plunge of the ruble.

There are three questions to be addressed here: Why did Yeltsin decide to change his economic and foreign policy? Will this new course work? And what are the likely consequences?

A simple answer has been given to the first question. The shift in policy is the result of the Dec. 12 elections. Yeltsin is reacting to the Zhirinovsky factor.

Although not incorrect, this answer is incomplete. It seems that the president interpreted the political mood in the country in the following way: The public is tired of market reforms and of shock therapy. People are afraid of unpredictability, uncertainty and the threat of unemployment. People are uncomfortable with the diminished stature of Russia in world affairs. A large part of the electorate was attracted to imperialist and nationalist rhetoric.

Yeltsin is not alone in such a reading of the situation. A stream of articles in the press discuss the heritage of totalitarianism in the Russian psyche. The people are said to be unprepared for democracy. They long for the times when the state provided everything. They are said to experience nostalgia for the times when the West feared the mighty Soviet Union and they resent the fact that today they see Russia in the role of a beggar.

Yeltsin's strategy seems to be to pull the rug out from under the feet of ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- to satisfy the perceived cravings of Zhirinovsky's electorate without Zhirinovsky.

The chosen course is the result of Yeltsin's incorrect reading of popular attitudes. Those parts of the electorate who stayed home on election day or voted for Zhirinovsky and the Communists are not necessarily opposed to market reforms as such, they are just tired of endless reports of corruption in high places, they are rightfully indignant over the rise of crime and lawlessness. They are fearful for their future and their jobs. The main cause of Zhirinovsky's success is the deteriorating economic situation.

The key question then is: Is there a set of alternative policies which would alleviate the frustrations of the electorate without embracing neo-Communist economics and imperialist foreign policy? The answer is, of course, "yes." It is possible for a democratic government to root out corruption and to create a functioning banking system so that common citizens are not afraid to deposit their savings in Russian banks. It is possible, although difficult, to create new jobs, by starting all kinds of retraining programs, by stimulating the development of small businesses, the service sector, public works and all kinds of other programs practiced in the West.

It is also possible to restore the feeling of pride in the nation, not by imperial rhetoric but by creating an image of Russia as a full partner among the Great Powers, a country that is respected, not feared, by its neighbors.

Will the new course resolve Russia's economic and political crisis? Will the president be able to calm the fears of the electorate and appease the nationalists and the Communists? The answer is: "no." The reasons are obvious. State regulation of industry, a euphemism for easy credits to the military-industrial complex, would generate a new spiral of inflation, a tax on the poor.

In the end the remedy is going to hurt common citizens, those whom it is ostensibly supposed to help. As a result, fears for tomorrow, instability, rising prices, and inevitable unemployment will generate outbursts of frustration which may destabilize and discredit the government.

In foreign policy the shift toward tough rhetoric and imperial designs on neighboring countries is a self-defeating policy for Yeltsin. It is an ideological capitulation to Russia's imperialists and nationalists.

Those who long for the reconstitution of the Soviet empire, however, would still prefer the hard imperialism of Zhirinovsky to the soft imperialism of Yeltsin, who in their eyes is too closely connected with the West. Yeltsin must understand that for the real nationalists and imperialists in Russia, he is an enemy anyway. They will never forgive him the accords he signed which led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

In the end, Yeltsin may alienate the forces of democracy and fail to placate the forces on the right. Abandoned by both, he may not have enough authority to prevail in the next political crisis. Facing an army that is unreliable, a parliament that is hostile, and an electorate indignant over the new spiral of inflation, the president runs the risk of creating the conditions for his own political demise and the victory of nationalists and Communists, be it in elections in 1996 or in another attempted coup earlier.

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