Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Setting for Summit: A Russia in Turmoil

When President Bill Clinton awakes in Moscow on Thursday morning, he will find himself in a Russia shaken by domestic political turmoil and in which the most fundamental policy directions are open questions.


The Russia that Clinton is visiting effectively has no government. The reformers who have controlled economic policy since 1992 are on the run after their Dec. 12 election defeat. And a newly elected parliament is living up to pessimistic expectations.


Amid the wreckage, President Boris Yeltsin, fresh from an election-day referendum victory on a new constitution that gives him the power to name ministers and sidestep parliament, is the country's only guarantor of stability.


Inevitably the U.S. president, who this time carries no new bumper aid offers in his pocket, is stressing his support for Yeltsin over previous U.S. insistence on the merits of continued "shock therapy."


The December elections have torn up Russia's political landscape, leaving in shambles the reformists grouped around First Deputy Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, whose continued prominence had until now served as assurance to the West that Moscow was firmly on the path to market reform.


Instead of bolstering Western favorites such as Gaidar, the elections have pushed into ascendance ultranationalists and Communists who have made the most of popular discontent over the harsh effects of Gaidar's reforms.


Some Washington politicians, alarmed at the December election results, have already started to question U.S. insistence on a rapid solution to economic reform plans in Russia. Vice President Al Gore, who visited Moscow shortly after the December elections, echoed the doubts.


Even with his new powers, Yeltsin can no longer afford to drag the country kicking and screaming into a democratic market economy.


Proof of this is that Yeltsin has abandoned the fate of the reformers in his cabinet to Prime Minster Viktor Chernomyrdin, the proponent of a slower, "socially oriented" approach to economic reform.


"There is only one member of the government today," Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Shokhin said Tuesday. "His name is Chernomyrdin."


Chernomyrdin will choose four new deputy prime ministers to replace the nine old ones. He is expected to choose three men, Oleg Soskovets, Alexander Zaveryukha and Yury Yarov, whose views are closer to his own than to Gaidar's.


Gaidar, whose Russia's Choice bloc won a disappointing 15 percent of in December parliamentary poll, is also expected to keep his job. But he is widely predicted to be demoted to a simple deputy prime minister, one rank below that of first deputy, which is expected for Soskovets.


Other members of the "Gaidar team" that has pursued the policy of quick, albeit painful transformation, are expected to be demoted to the rank of ordinary ministers or dropped from the government entirely.


The personnel shake-up aims to minimize the potential for conflict with the Duma. But if Yeltsin or Clinton believe that this will be enough to ensure a smooth path for Russia's economic development or a constructive partnership with the State Duma, they are most likely mistaken.


Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said before Tuesday's tumultuous opening session of the Duma that the powerful opposition wing in parliament would only be satisfied by a wholesale change in strategy.


"It is no longer a question of Yeltsin or Chernomyrdin, but of changing the course of economic reform," Zyuganov told reporters.


In a speech to the Duma on Tuesday, Chernomyrdin signaled a willingness to make changes, calling for an end to "impatient" shock therapy measures.


The most immediate implications of any policy change would be that large state enterprises would receive renewed state support rather than being shut down, postponing the step of allowing the mass bankruptcies and unemployment needed to restructure industries.


But by avoiding these measures, the government risks reversing the gains of reformists, who had finally succeeded in stabilizing the ruble and bringing inflation to its lowest level since prices were freed in January 1992.


In a sign of doubt over reforms, the ruble dropped Wednesday to an all-time low of 1,355 to the dollar, down from 1,293 rubles on Tuesday, according to the Moscow Interbank Currency Exchange.


The prospects for Russia's foreign policy are similarly uncertain. Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev is almost certain to keep his job, but he has been hardening his stance toward the former Soviet republics and the West.


The ultranationalist Liberal Democrats of Vladimir Zhirinovsky are the single largest faction in the Duma, with 64 members, and they have a large group of supporters of their anti-Western stance on foreign policy issues among the Communists and Agrarians.


Clinton, perhaps responding to critics who say he has staked too much on Yeltsin, plans to meet with Zyuganov and other opposition leaders during his visit. But he has drawn the line at seeing Zhirinovsky.