Nationalist Economics: New Creed for 1995?

Russian reforms face a fresh threat in 1995 from senior politicians close to President Boris Yeltsin who are advocating nationalist economic policies in a bid to revive flagging political support for the president, analysts said Wednesday.

Yeltsin's recently appointed privatization chief, his foreign trade minister and security chief all have made statements over the Christmas period that point to the growth of a nationalist economic current within the top echelons of government.

The development is all the more disturbing for reform-minded analysts because the influence of these politicians over Yeltsin has grown since the start of the Chechnya campaign, while the president's popularity has waned.

"There's an attempt at regaining and widening the political base of the government by trying to play to the longing for when Russia was great," said a senior Western economist, who declined to be named. "Until the Chechen situation is stabilized the danger will continue, but nothing is likely to be settled until it is over."

Vladimir Polevanov, a deputy prime minister and head of the State Property Committee, was quoted in Russian newspapers last Friday as saying he would seek the renationalization of a number of privatized industries, adding that leading figures in the Duma plus some members of the government and president's administration backed his ideas.

"It's really, really bad that the head of a state committee can do a thing like this," said a senior Russian economist, who also did not wish to be named. "It's very dangerous for the economy and for Russia to talk of the renationalization of industry.

"It would be an extremely bad thing for investors and foreign buyers."

The debate over Polevanov's comments comes as Russia announced its highest monthly inflation rate -- 16.4 percent -- since last January, indicating in the eyes of Western creditors that the country still has far to go in reining in its money supply. (Story, Page 10.)

It is crucial that Moscow obtains foreign credits worth almost $13 billion if it is to finance a predicted budget deficit of 7.7 percent of gross domestic product this year.

But the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have said they may not come up with the cash if Russia fails to stick to earlier commitments that would further liberalize the economy.

The most contentious commitment was a promise to abolish oil export quotas by Jan. 1, which Moscow reportedly now plans to replace with domestic quotas that would amount to the same thing in practice. (Story, Page 10)

In Washington, Yukon Huang, in charge of Russian operations for the World Bank, told The Associated Press that export restrictions on oil would limit the amount of foreign income the country was able to earn, reduce tax revenues and discourage investors. Russia would then be less attractive as a borrower, because its ability to repay credits would be put in doubt.

Conservative politicians, headed by

Foreign Trade Minister Oleg Davydov, have argued that liberalizing oil exports would result in a flood of cheap Russian oil to the West, would cause massive domestic price hikes and would greatly strengthen the influence of foreign oil companies in Russia.

Yeltsin's security chief, Major General Alexander Korzhakov -- a long-time close associate of the president who has been thrust to prominence in recent weeks -- intervened in the affair by writing to Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin last month strongly opposing the liberalization of oil exports.

"The economy cannot be strengthened by foreign intervention in the raw materials sector," wrote Korzhakov.

Such isolationist sentiments were echoed last week by Polevanov, who said foreign investment in aluminum, energy and defense firms "directly threatened the country's interests."

He called for the renationalization of each of these sectors of the economy and an increase in state regulation of enterprises.

Polevanov gained some support Sunday from First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets, who told Itar-Tass that an official investigation should be launched into the privatization of the metals industry and proposed appointing government representatives to the management of these companies.

But First Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Chubais, who has overall responsibility for economic policy and is Polevanov's predecessor at the State Property Committee, has said he is firmly opposed to renationalization.

"There can be no question of renationalization in these or any other sectors," he told reporters last month. But while Chubais is formally Polevanov's boss, the degree of influence he wields over his subordinate is unclear.

"Chubais does not have much control over him," said the Western economist. "He's running his own show."

Yeltsin plucked Polevanov from relative obscurity in the far-flung Amur region to head the State Property Committee in November, after Chubais was promoted to first deputy prime minister -- nominally the third most powerful figure in the cabinet after Chernomyrdin and Soskovets.

Fears that Chubais had merely been "kicked upstairs" were assuaged at the time by assurances that he would maintain an active role in privatization policy.