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Now Action Should Follow Words

Yeltsin promises to make things right for a Russia in disarray

March 09, 1997

President Boris Yeltsin looked fit, vigorous and determined when he addressed Russia's parliament the other day, an appearance that contrasted sharply with the unhealthy society he described in his annual state of the nation speech.

Yeltsin revealed no official secrets when he portrayed a country wracked by unpunished crime, its pensioners and much of its work force unpaid, its army unfed, its public officials lazy, corrupt and inhumane. Things would change, he pledged, beginning with a major shake-up in his government. As usual, Yeltsin was blaming subordinates for failure to deal with Russia's myriad faults. As usual, he promised to make things right without offering any details of what he plans to do.

He has at least made a start by bringing back into the government the liberal reformer Anatoly B. Chubais, who will serve as first deputy prime minister to Premier Viktor S. Chernomyrdin. Chubais, highly regarded in the West as a first-rate administrator, will be in charge of economic reform. Real reform is going to require, among other things, slashing the size of Russia's swollen and inefficient bureaucracy, removing further obstacles to Russia's transition to a market economy and overseeing the development of a tax system that encourages investment and enterprise while providing adequate revenues to a cash-starved government.

This is not just a tall order but a monumental one. Because it involves riding roughshod over many established interests, Chubais can expect resistance every step of the way. But his appointment will by itself be taken as a reassuring sign outside Russia, perhaps inducing the International Monetary Fund to release the latest installment of its $10-billion loan to Moscow. The key question is how strongly Yeltsin will support Chubais when his reformist actions start to bring pain to those who have so far done quite well out of Russia's economic disarray. The answer to that is the answer to how serious Yeltsin is about trying to clean up the mess he so candidly described in his state of the nation speech.

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