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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin's Solid State Minister

Go back a couple of years. More precisely to Dec. 14, 1992, when President Yeltsin gave up on Yegor Gaidar.


To be fair, Yeltsin had tried. For the previous two weeks he had done battle with the ranks of gray-suited men in the Congress of People's Deputies, struggling to cajole them into accepting that Gaidar was the best man for the job of prime minister.


It was to no avail. A year of Gaidar's reforming zeal had sent annual inflation rocketing to more than 2,000 percent, reduced industrial output by more than a fifth and closed down hundreds of loss-making factories. That was bad enough. But the real problem for those unsmiling collective farm directors, state enterprise directors, former Communist Party chiefs and medal-laden generals who were packed into the Kremlin's Congress Hall, was the threat that Gaidar and his circle posed to them personally. Boris Nikolayevich could say what he liked, but he would never convince them to vote for their own execution.


Step forward Viktor Chernomyrdin. Weighty, ponderous, solid and cautious. The safe choice. A former head of Gazprom, one of the great Soviet behemoths, whose age -- he was 58 at the time -- gave him a shared background, if not necessarily common cause, with those remnants of a bygone era. And sure enough, once installed as prime minister, Chernomyrdin lit up those old eyes, telling the deputies just what they wanted to hear. He pledged to raise production, to maintain the powerful infrastructure and stop Russia from becoming a nation of street vendors. We need, Chernomyrdin told them to rapturous applause, a market and not a "bazaar."


So that was that. Russia had had its little experiment with "romantic" reform and could now go back to the dithering half-measures that had helped ensure the country's collapse since Gorbachev started toying with the idea of a market economy in the early days of perestroika. The Gaidar team sank into despondency, seemingly incapable of any action other than issuing regular forecasts of disaster.


Now the Congress is long gone, its executive body, the Supreme Soviet, blasted into submission by Yeltsin's tanks around the White House. And although many of the Old Guard have enjoyed a reincarnation as deputies of the State Duma, their time is over. The clocks will not go back.


Gaidar, for his part, looks as gloomy as ever, despite the fact that -- or perhaps because -- disaster did not strike after all. Inflation, though far higher than the government or the International Monetary Fund would like, has been kept more or less under control, the second stage of privatization is under way and even the ruble, notwithstanding its gymnastics earlier this month, has been more stable than anyone thought possible.


And Viktor Chernomyrdin is still at his desk. The desk might not be screwed down as tightly as it should be and moving it to Sochi during the recent currency crisis was bizarre to say the least. But, despite the rumors, he is still there.


With hindsight, Chernomyrdin's appointment was a very shrewd move. Whether because the reform program initiated by Gaidar had already gained an unstoppable momentum, or because in a less demonstrative way Chernomyrdin was still pursuing those reforms, much of the program the radicals intended has been followed. And however much they complain about their ideas being hijacked, they would never have been able to implement them themselves.


Even today, Gaidar remains unappointable as Prime Minister. The opposition would have no trouble whipping up a no-confidence vote. And while legislation at present is by presidential decree rather than parliament, Yeltsin still needs a government to implement his decrees.


Chernomyrdin has proved to have virtues of his own, not least his acceptability to parliament. His Gazprom past gets him the support of the oil and gas industry. In addition, Chernomyrdin has gone down very well in the West, where his stolid, dull appearance acts as a useful foil to Yeltsin's flamboyance and add weight to the impression of Russia's stability. No one is going to catch him oversleeping a stopover.


Despite the denials, there can be no doubt that something was amiss with Chernomyrdin in the last few days. How close he came to resigning may remain a matter of guesswork, but it seems clear that Yeltsin has weighed up the options and decided that for now at any rate, he cannot let his unglamorous prime minister go.