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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

See You Soon, Shokhin

Without a doubt one of the most important bits of political news out of Moscow in recent days was the resignation of Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Shokhin, who -- until this weekend -- headed Russia's Economics Ministry. By today's standards, Shokhin was a veteran, having served four years in government. For some time, his critics have accused him of being unprincipled and have assumed that he would never voluntarily step down. However, when the end came, it was clearly a matter of principle.


Shokhin announced that he was considering stepping down at least a full day before he actually did. He argued that if the government intends to stick to its austerity budget for 1995, then the deputy prime minister in charge of economic policy must be able to influence the selection of the ministers of finance and economics.


Nonetheless, the new appointments were made without consulting Shokhin, and they were clearly the result of political compromises. Declaring that the economy cannot be a prisoner of politics, Shokhin resigned.


Shokhin's action instantly changed the way a number of his political opponents, including Yegor Gaidar and Boris Fyodorov, viewed him. Both expressed regret that the government was losing such a qualified professional. In addition, a number of journalists who in the past had criticized Shokhin for his "careerism" and for his "excessive flexibility" publicly apologized when they heard the news.


At the beginning of his career, Shokhin had no intention of becoming a government bureaucrat. After he received his degree, he set out on a career in theoretical economics. But in 1987, after Shokhin had already prepared two doctoral dissertations, then Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze -- seeking to inject some new blood into the Foreign Ministry -- decided to select an economic adviser from the outside. He chose Shokhin.


Shevardnadze was quite pleased with Shokhin and promoted the young economist to the post of director of the Department of International Economic Ties. In 1990, Shokhin received his first invitation to join the government, but he declined because he felt that Russia was severely hamstrung by the continued existence of the Soviet Union.


In the summer of 1991, Shokhin was invited to become labor minister in the government of Ivan Silayev. It is interesting that he accepted the post at the most critical moment, Aug. 19, 1991, just as the coup plotters tried to seize power. Moreover, on the very same day, like many of Yeltsin's supporters, Shokhin joined the defenders of Russian democracy at the White House.


Shokhin became one of the central players of Gaidar's new government, the only one in fact who already had ministerial experience. Sources from within the government circles of that time confirm that when the future reformers gathered that autumn to form a government, Shokhin's name was put forward as prime minister. However, Shokhin himself spoke out in support of Gaidar, saying that he was the best macroeconomist of the group.


The unity of the group of young reformers that came to power in those days was truly enviable. Unfortunately, that unity was shaken at the end of 1992 when Gaidar was compelled to step down. Gaidar tried to bring down Shokhin with him, and the political differences between the two continued to grow during last year's election campaign. Gaidar called on all democratically minded Russians to cast their first free vote for Russia's Choice. Shokhin, though, felt that the party's radicalism would alienate many voters, pushing them toward the communists and Vladimir Zhirinovsky.


Another key reformer, Boris Fyodorov, whom Shokhin persuaded to return from Washington to become finance minister, also became a stern critic as time went by. The crucial moment came early this year when Gaidar and Fyodorov left Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's government, but Shokhin remained. It was this that led to the accusations of lack of principles, accommodation and the like.


Shokhin guesses that over the last four years there have been at least five serious attempts to remove him. How was it then that he held out so long? Unquestionably it was because of his genuine professionalism in the fulfillment of his duties. This was particularly clear in the sphere of international economics.


Virtually everyone, including Shokhin's harshest critics, admits that he is a master at conducting negotiations. His unique ability to formulate his thoughts, his patience and firmness enabled him to achieve considerable results in negotiations with the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations, the International Monetary Fund and other bodies.


At a recent negotiating session being conducted by Shokhin, I had a rare chance to hear what "the other side" had to say about him. "I think that he is quite competent," a negotiator told me. "As far as defending the interests of his country, he handles this problem well, which is not easy considering that we are talking about a weakened power. And this isn't always a matter of smiles and friendship. Sometimes you have to make your opponent hate you. With Shokhin it is not always easy to reach the necessary level of mutual understanding, but when it does happen, one feels somewhat captivated by him."


When former President Richard Nixon returned from his last trip to Russia, he advised Americans to pay more attention to the new generation of Russian political leaders, including Grigory Yavlinsky, Sergei Shakhrai and "the spectacular economics minister, Alexander Shokhin." Today, Shokhin is enduring a personal setback. He was not able to finish the business that he was charged with in government. However, we can be certain that this 43-year-old politician with his considerable talents will not be outside the political arena for long.


Alexei Portansky is a political commentator for Izvestia. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.