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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What Went Wrong in Yeltsin's Plan For Reform?

One irony associated with this week's announcement of a new cabinet drowns all others -- namely that the former Supreme Soviet would without question have approved it.


President Boris Yeltsin literally went to war to rid himself of the Supreme Soviet, warning that the backward-looking parliament would destroy Russia.


Having won his battle at the White House in October, he drove into force a new constitution giving him wide-ranging powers, precisely and explicitly so that he could maintain his program of rapid economic reform regardless of what any future parliament might think.


Yet just one month after the December referendum that approved the constitution, the president has accepted a cabinet dominated by the conservative wing of his former government.


With the exception of Alexander Zaveryukha, Chernomyrdin's new ministers are hardly reactionaries or Communists -- but they are united in their opposition to the policies Yeltsin said he was trying to protect. The Supreme Soviet would happily have accepted this cabinet.


What went wrong?


At root the answer is simple: The parliamentary elections of Dec. 12 were a shock and a disaster. They disproved the mantra Yeltsin had been repeating ever since the April referendum on confidence in his rule -- that the majority of Russians support radical reform.


What appeared after the elections was a nation divided and thoroughly confused. There was no consensus for reform, nor even for what in the West would be understood as democracy.


In Eastern Europe, even with that consensus, economic "shock therapy" has proved difficult enough to implement. Without it, rapid reform could be effected only by means of a benign dictatorship, with Yeltsin relying on the constitution, the army and the security services to maintain stability while Russia swallowed the bitter pill.


Doubtless the president has considered that option, one that is surprisingly often touted by Russia's liberal intelligentsia.


President Bill Clinton hardly recommended a dictatorship when he commented on Finance Minister Boris Fyodorov's resignation Thursday. But he did base his confidence that Russia would stay on the path of reform on Yeltsin's "strong grip" resulting from a constitution that gives him "more power than I have here."


The implication behind Clinton's statement was that regardless of who is in parliament or the government, Yeltsin is powerful enough and a sufficiently committed reformer to keep the country on what the West considers the right track.This is wishful thinking. Yeltsin does now have immense constitutional powers, but he cannot rely on the army, which backed him in October only reluctantly, or on the security forces, which he recently broke into pieces in an effort to reduce their power.


As a consequence, Yeltsin has been forced to compromise. If he could not keep the reformers in the cabinet, there is no reason to believe he will be able to keep their monetarist policies alive. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and his friends from the military-industrial complex offered Yeltsin the only solution.


Here again there is a powerful irony. Yegor Gaidar and Fyodorov both were elected to parliament on the ticket of Russia's Choice --the party that gained the largest single block of votes in the new State Duma. They have been squeezed out of the government.


Alexander Shokhin and Sergei Shakhrai, whose party only just edged into parliament, have remained.


Chernomyrdin did not run for election at all and the party that most closely represented his strand of moderate economic conservatism in the elections, Civic Union, gained so little support that it did not make it into parliament.


Yet Chernomyrdin has benefitted more than anyone but Vladimir Zhirinovsky from December's vote, finally getting his way in forming a new government and setting a new economic policy.


In effect, Yeltsin has turned to a political center that has virtually no support in the country. Most people voted either for the ultranationalists, the ultraconservatives or the ultraradicals in December. There was very little in between.


The secret to Chernomyrdin's success is that the president had little choice.


He was not strong enough to confront parliament and the half of society that voted against reform by ramming through rapid economic change. Nor was he craven enough to form a government with Zhirinovsky's ultranationalists and the Communists.


If politics is the art of the possible, then in this vacuum of political possibilities Chernomyrdin and his team of rather conservative, but hopefully loyal, apparatchiks and factory directors may have been Yeltsin's only option, giving the last laugh to the deputies of the former Supreme Soviet.