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NEWS ANALYSIS : Yeltsin Recites Reform Mantra but Mixes Signals : Russia: President looks fit, but contradictory message may not reassure West or undo damage of Chechen operation.

February 17, 1995|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — For more than a year, President Boris N. Yeltsin has been drifting further toward authoritarianism and deeper into seclusion. So seldom are his public appearances, they are scrutinized for signs of his fitness to lead Russia and his commitment to democracy and reform.

Yeltsin's State of the Nation address to Parliament on Thursday was such an occasion. But it carried too many mixed messages to answer the persistent questions about the state of the president or to repair much of the damage brought upon him by the army's disastrous two-month assault on the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

The 64-year-old Siberian did walk unassisted to and from a podium in the Kremlin and speak lucidly for an hour. There was none of the stumbling and slurring that caused so much alarm about his health Friday in Kazakhstan.

But the speech itself did not fully live up to Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev's advance billing as a reassuring message for the West.

Kozyrev had said Yeltsin would speak as "the main engine and guarantor" of reform and that "the Chechen tragedy will give an impulse to the progress of transformations" in post-Soviet Russia.

To his credit, Yeltsin addressed the need to "establish the authority of law."

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He promised long-delayed reforms of the courts and the army and crackdowns on corrupt officials and mafia lords.

He pledged to go ahead with presidential elections when his five-year term ends in June, 1996.

But in the same speech, he warned that he will not tolerate "boorishness and insults" from the Russian press, which has condemned his handling of the Chechen war, nor allow it to make "a mockery of the state." He said it is getting hard to resist pressure to impose censorship.

While appealing for partnership with the West, he sharply attacked it for planning to extend the protective umbrella of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to Eastern Europe.

Americans and Europeans, he said, should stop suspecting Russia of harboring "black designs" beyond its borders.

Yeltsin repeated the reformist mantra of fighting inflation, balancing the budget, steadying the ruble, opening up the Russian market--conditions demanded by the International Monetary Fund for a badly needed $6-billion credit.

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Then, as if he did not mean any of this, Yeltsin promised to take better care of Russia's military-industrial complex, the scientific Establishment, the farm lobby--commitments that could spell budget-busting subsidies. He also announced a temporary hike in import barriers.

"His commitment to stabilization was not front and center by any means," said the economic counselor at a Western embassy here. "He promised a whole series of other things that sounded populist, as if this were an election speech."

If Yeltsin plans to run next year, he has cause to worry. Leading reformers have abandoned him because of the war.

A recent nationwide survey gave him the trust of 8% of those polled. His reception from lawmakers Thursday was coolly polite, with only a smattering of applause.

"People simply do not trust the old leaders," said Pyotr S. Filippov, a Yeltsin adviser. "Under these conditions, you could get a groundswell for a populist, any talented populist." Filippov and a few other democrats have stuck by Yeltsin out of belief that, despite the brutality and secrecy of a war pushed on him by hard-liners, he is still the strongest guarantor of reform.

Unlike former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, whom he helped depose, Yeltsin has not yet become a total captive of hard-liners in his circle. Thursday's speech was more a product of reformist advisers.

And the president may dump Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev and others who persuaded him in December that the army could whip the Chechens in a week.

Still, Yeltsin bears responsibility for the biggest slaughter of civilians in Russia since the Stalin dictatorship--thousands of Chechens killed by indiscriminate bombing and artillery strikes--as well as the deaths of more than 1,000 Russian soldiers in a conflict that is far from over.

Speaking on live television, Yeltsin offered an imperfect defense. The army was unprepared for such strong resistance and reacted with "violations of the rights of citizens" in the war zone, he said, but the rest of Russia has not succumbed to militarism.

"Russia is ridding itself of the malignant tumor of the regime in Grozny at the beginning of the development of its own statehood, in conditions of weak democratic traditions," Yeltsin said.

"And in these conditions," he added, "the authorities had enough levelheadedness not to suppress the wave of criticism, to remain open inside the country and respect the outside world. These are signs of normal democratic statehood, which has withstood its first and very severe trial."

That argument will get a receptive hearing in Washington and other Western capitals.

Western officials tend to view Chechnya as a setback in a long, turbulent process of democratic development in Russia that must be encouraged by Western engagement and assistance.

But Yeltsin could be hurt by his refusal to take personal blame for the carnage in Chechnya, to admit that it is still going on or to state how he plans to stop it, some advisers admitted.

"If he keeps blaming subordinates and not himself, he will get an even lower rating and cannot consider himself a strong candidate in the next elections," said Viktor I. Borisyuk, deputy chief of the presidential analytical center. "But as commander in chief, he cannot say he led the country into a wrong place" with the war still going.

"We have soldiers there. How will they react? The consequences are hard to predict."

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