Russia's Uncertain Path


As Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin begins his first state visit to Washington today, he is experiencing one of those strange summers at home, when people frolic in the sun after the darkness of winter, daily routines are broken and everyday activities begin to slide even worse than usual.

During his unsuccessful six-year attempt to turn the Soviet Union around, Mikhail S. Gorbachev always had his worst political troubles in the summer. Even the clumsy coup against him occurred in the summer. His de facto successor, Russia's President Boris N. Yeltsin, is now approaching his first summer in power and things do not look good. Mr. Yeltsin still enjoys high personal popularity. But the number of Muscovites who believe in the ultimate success of his administration's economic policies dropped from 40 percent in April to 32 percent in May, according to a recent survey.

Mr. Yeltsin's foes have been emboldened recently by his administration's inability to shift rapidly and conclusively into a free-market economic system. Although the president still expresses confidence in Yegor Gaidar, his apostle of free market reforms, the popular backlash has clearly led Mr. Yeltsin to hedge his bets. Those with vested interests in continuing vast, centrally run factory complexes -- from armament plants to huge research institutes -- are now vociferously arguing that the reforms attempted so far have been too radical. They advocate a more "gradual" approach.

We are back to the fight that went on as Mr. Gorbachev unsuccessfully zigzagged in his reforms. Yet if Russia really wants to make a clean break with its past, its people have to swallow the medicine and plunge into the free market without further hesitation. Otherwise, the painful transformation will be endangered and all of Mr. Yeltsin's corrective measures -- from a partial lifting of price controls to liberalized trade -- will have been in vain. It is too late for halfway measures. Or, as a Moscow analyst put it, "Either we will have mass unemployment or we will have hyper-inflation. But if we try to compromise, we will have both."

Vacillation in Moscow is already producing adverse results. Domestically, once-clear signals of hope now are again a mixed muddle. Externally, Russia's negotiations with the International Monetary Fund have bogged down. A badly needed multi-billion-dollar aid package is in limbo.

This kind of destructive stalemate is certain to continue unless Mr. Yeltsin has the courage to put his fate in the hands of the people by calling new elections. The old communist-controlled parliament has outlived its usefulness. A Gorbachev creation which at a time marked progress toward democratization, it has now become the final control mechanism of the old order. It now threatens Russia's new beginning.

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