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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chubais: New Russian

It has become general practice to call the nouveaux riches of the country New Russians. There is, however, another kind of New Russian: He comes from the democratic intelligentsia, which would like to see Russia become civilized in all respects.


I became acquainted with many such people back in 1989, during the elections to Congress of People's Deputies -- the first in the U.S.S.R. to offer some alternative to Soviet power.


At that time, people I did not know called me from the city of Sosnovy Bor in the Leningrad oblast to say that all the Soviet Communist Party candidates -- six high-level local bureaucrats -- had been rejected in Leningrad and the outlying oblasts, and therefore no one had been elected. They were organizing another election, in which the Communists had removed themselves from the ballot, and invited me to run against the populist candidate Alexander Obolensky.


When I arrived at Sosnovy Bor, I was met by Pyotr Filippov and Anatoly Chubais, now the president's chief of staff. They said they represented a group of people who opposed Party bureaucracy candidates and proposed that they act as my proxies.


In order to get a fair idea of their position, one should bear in mind that, as deputy chief editor of the magazine Kommunist, the theoretical organ of the Soviet Communist Party, I was something of a party bureaucrat myself at that time. My rival's chief merit, on the other hand, was that he had never been a member of the Communist Party. This implied that those who had entrusted me to represent them did not judge people by the color of their party-membership card but rather by their concrete political positions. Later, I discovered that my new acquaintances were on friendly terms with Yegor Gaidar, whom I had asked to head the economic department of Kommunist.


Although I lost the election, I think that my proxies could be recognized as winners. At least, this is what I came to understand several days later as I sat in the section reserved for visitors at the Congress of People's Deputies, and observed at a distance the intelligent people who were losing their heads in front of television cameras, which were broadcasting this celebration of democracy throughout the entire country.


I thus got to know genuine New Russians -- ones who strove for neither money nor fame. Two years later, after the August putsch, Boris Yeltsin nominated Gaidar deputy prime minister for the economy, and among the names on Gaidar's team were Filippov and Chubais -- my proxies. As it happened, Russians were meant to put their trust in Gaidar's team on the basis of Yeltsin's authority, but I began to believe in Yeltsin when I learned of the team he had gathered together.


As chairman of the State Property Committee, Chubais was responsible for privatization -- the heart of radical reform. At first, the opposition vehemently accused him of pilfering public wealth. But when it became clear that few people believed in communist dogma, the opposition starting saying privatization was needed, although Chubais went about it in the wrong way. Clever businessmen, according to this version, were able to buy up valuable enterprises at little or almost no cost.


This was true in many cases, but Chubais is not responsible. Several enterprises simply could not be sold at a higher price. For example, the controlling block of shares of the ZiL automobile plant, which was bought for $4 million, was appraised at $2 billion by the opposition. Unfortunately, the opposition's estimate would be accurate if it had been a successful factory in a country with a market economy. But an investment of some $1 billion would be required before ZiL could function properly.


At the beginning of 1994, Chubais' role in the government's reform policies was decisive. Gaidar and former finance minister Boris Fyodorov had left the government, not finding a common language with Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Still running the State Property Committee and all privatization matters, Chubais began to direct all the economic sectors of the government, which is to say, he took over all the previous functions of Gaidar. When Yevgeny Yasin was nominated economics minister, the number of "Gaidar's people" actually increased, and Chubais began to govern "Gaidar's team" without Gaidar.


The Communist opposition made every effort to ascribe all the difficulties of the transitional economic period and the president's and government's mistakes to the "democrats," whose main representative was Chubais. Yeltsin figured that the voters who supported reforms would vote for him in any case and that the opponents of reform could be calmed by Chubais' resignation.


But Chubais began quietly working together with Yeltsin's close aide Viktor Ilyushin at the president's pre-election headquarters. Yeltsin's rise from his very low ratings this January to winning the presidency in June owes much to Chubais' efforts.


Unfortunately, in his new position as head of the president's administration and chief aide, Chubais will not be occupied with the economy. His job is to strengthen the shaky government apparatus. And his first task will be to obtain successful results for the president in the approaching gubernatorial elections in the majority of Russia's oblasts. These figures make up the Federation Council -- the upper house of parliament -- whose role in counterbalancing the influence of the opposition in the lower house is invaluable.


No less important is that Chubais' new powerful post will serve as a counterweight to the new security tsar Alexander Lebed. It has long been known that Yeltsin never forgets about balancing forces.





Otto Latsis is a senior political correspondent for Izvestia. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.