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The World : Why More 'Normal' Times May Undo Yeltsin's Future

October 30, 1994|Steven Merritt Miner | Steven Merritt Miner, a professor of Russian history at Ohio University, is a contributor to "The Diplomats," edited by Gordon Craig and F.L. Loewenheim, to be published by Princeton University. He is also working on a book, "Selling Stalin," about Soviet wartime propaganda

ATHENS, OHIO — Early autumn seems to be a season of discontent for Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin. Three years after the failed communist coup, and almost exactly a year since the violent confrontation between Yeltsin and the reactionary Soviet-era Parliament, the fate of the Russian government is once again under a cloud.

Last week, the administration of Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, Yeltsin's prime minister, narrowly survived a no-confidence vote in the state Duma. Still, the omens are far from favorable to the current government. A recent string of ecological, economic and foreign-policy messes ensures that the Duma, which in the best of times is hostile to the executive, will continue to subject Chernomyrdin and his patron to a withering attack.

The recent oil spill in northern Russia could not, therefore, have come at a worse time politically. The dimensions of the disaster are staggering: more than 2 million barrels of oil, representing both millions of dollars in lost revenue and vast ecological damage, have oozed into the delicate Arctic ecosystem. As the oil spreads, one early report holds that it has already covered an area equal to that of the city of St. Petersburg. Unfortunately, it is quite possible that the Russian government has understated the dimensions of the spill.

Cleanup will be difficult. The Russian oil industry, never well-equipped, has been run down during the last decade; it simply lacks the tools and skills necessary to combat a disaster of such dimensions. Furthermore, the terrain and climate inhibit a rapid or comprehensive cleanup. Spilling from several holes in a pipeline, hot oil has spread over delicate Arctic permafrost; as it does so, it melts and permeates the frozen earth, which will then refreeze, leaving the oil locked deep into the ground. It's hard to imagine that containment efforts will be able to prevent large amounts of oil from leaking into the Pechora river, which flows into the Barents Sea.

The disaster is especially damaging to the government, because it can rightly be blamed for reacting too slowly. The breaks in the pipeline occurred some months ago; yet, the still-nationalized Russian oil industry tried only lackadaisically to contain the spill with a makeshift, and apparently inadequate, dam that subsequently burst during rainstorms. Also, anti-government politicians will surely contend, misleadingly but perhaps effectively, that budget cuts are responsible for equipment failures in the oil industry.

Ecological disaster in the north, far away from population centers, might be forgiven if Russians believed that the economy was getting better; but they do not. Recent polls show that almost 90% of Russians feel that the economy is calamitous. And yet, the situation is more complex than that grim statistic would suggest. In the same poll, some three-quarters of Russians indicated that their personal economic situation is not too bad. The government's dilemma is that it gets none of the credit for individuals' personal feelings of well-being but is blamed for the pervasive sense of crisis.

Much of the blame for this widespread alarm about the economy must rest with Chernomyrdin, who comes from the old Soviet managerial class and has been reluctant to cut subsidies to failing state firms. As a result, the state prints ever more worthless rubles, adding to inflation and spawning the precipitous drop of the ruble, which fell in value versus a none-too-healthy dollar by 47% between Sept. 1 and Oct. 11, falling 22% on that last day alone. Although the ruble quickly recovered much of its value, the political damage had been done. Chernomyrdin appeared weak, foreign investors were scared and the public wondered who was running the ship.

Unlike most of the successor states to the old Soviet Union, Russia has managed to avoid hyperinflation, and the drive for privatization is at last producing results. For the first time since the Bolsheviks created the planned economy, more than half of Russia's gross domestic product is now produced by the private sector. Military spending has shrunk more dramatically than anyone had a right to hope, and unemployment is officially at 6% of the work force. But these successes are overshadowed by the roller-coaster ruble and by the only partly justified, but widespread, belief that those benefiting most from the market economy are organized-crime bosses.

Crime is the principal civic concern of most Russians, as numerous polls attest. The murder rate in Moscow is now not much better than in New York, something once almost unthinkable. Muggings are so common, and the perpetrators so infrequently caught, that most attacks are not even reported to the police. Virtually everyone one talks to believes that crime syndicates control much of economic activity, and, although this is not entirely true, it is true enough; the resultant despair further undermines the government's programs.

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