The latest session of the Russian Congress of People's Deputies, which finally adjourned Tuesday, often seemed farcical. The legislators spent nearly as much time worrying about Newton's laws and the official name of their country as they did about their real task, drafting a new constitution. But almost in spite of itself, the Congress was important. It underscored the strength of President Boris Yeltsin and the widespread support in Russia for continued democratization and economic reform.
The Congress was elected in the spring of 1990, when the Soviet Union still existed, so it is not surprising that the legislators include a sizable number of old-style bureaucrats and party functionaries, who either oppose Yeltsin's reforms outright or want to proceed much more slowly. This group of traditionalists vowed just before the legislative session began that they would put a brake on economic reforms, and it briefly seemed they would succeed.
By the end of the session's first week, the congress had voted by a substantial majority to cripple Yeltsin's reform program and require the installation of a new, more conservative government within three months. The adoption of this measure prompted Yeltsin's current government, including his chief economic adviser, Yegor Gaidar, to offer their resignations.
Yeltsin then confronted the Congress with the threat of accepting the resignation of his government. If the Congress had stuck to its guns and gone along with the dismissal of Yeltsin's government, the Russian president could have called for a popular referendum to demonstrate support for his program and demand new parliamentary elections.
If such a referendum had been held, there is no doubt that Yeltsin would have won handily. Recent public opinion polls indicate that 70% of Russians want the current government to stay on. The polls show similar support for Gaidar's reforms--a remarkable result, considering the hardship and disruption that those reforms have necessitated.
The anti-reformists of the Russian Congress may dislike the government's policies, but they dislike the thought of being out of a job even more. And so, the Congress effectively reversed itself and passed a declaration of support for "fundamentally transforming the economy." The declaration keeps Yeltsin's Cabinet in office until at least the end of the year and Yeltsin retains his emergency presidential powers.
Yeltsin's victory does not mean that the drastic reform program being implemented by Gaidar is immune to further challenges or guaranteed of success. Anti-reformists have already induced Yeltsin to make some tactical concessions on the speed of reform and to increase subsidies to state enterprises.
For now, though, Yeltsin and his aides should be able to proceed along the bold path they embarked on in January. Their commitment to radical reform is crucial in itself. The problem with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was that, for all his sweeping political and economic reforms, he was never willing to carry them through to their logical conclusion. Yeltsin has shown that he is prepared to dismantle socialism altogether.
Still, there's no guarantee that the painful reforms will pay off. Certainly there is no shortage of gloomy indicators. What used to be the Soviet economy declined last year by nearly 17% and a similar drop appears likely for the Russian economy in 1992. Unemployment is projected to reach as high as 30% if the government's industrial reforms are implemented as planned. And despite the economic contraction, inflation is far from under control. Faced with this kind of bad news, Russian leaders might be forgiven if they were to throw their hands in the air and declare the situation hopeless. But what is such a refreshing contrast to the Gorbachev era is that the officials responsible for dealing with the economy, especially Gaidar, understand precisely what needs to be done and are willing to suffer the political costs.
Agricultural reforms will prove especially critical, for if the government can generate large increases in the food supply, that will ensure continued public support for the broader program. The government's plans to dismantle collective farms and privatize farmland, to reduce the size of farms and to accept sharp increases in crop prices are very much in line with the agricultural measures that were so successful in China in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Despite all the problems that lie ahead, and despite the recent concessions that Yeltsin has had to make, there is now a government in Moscow that is truly committed to extirpating the remnants of communism. For the first time in 75 years the Russians do, as Gaidar put it, have "a chance to return to the real world."