Springtime in Russia


It's easy to see why President Clinton is so eager to travel to Moscow May 9 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the World War II Allied victory. Compared to President Boris N. Yeltsin's 6 percent approval rate in the latest Russian poll, Mr. Clinton's modest popularity at home seems downright staggering.

Throughout its often sad history, Russia has been a nation of grumblers. A Russian proverb captures this tendency: "Happiness is like a hunch in the back; it is heavy to bear."

Many Russians have ample reasons to complain. As the heavy state subsidization of staples has been discontinued, citizens now are at the mercy of a chaotic market economy. Yet things are not all gloomy. Four years after the collapse of communism, the often contradictory economic reorganization of the country seems to be producing the first promises of stability.

Granted, everything is relative. February's 11 percent inflation rate is still unacceptably high, but quite palatable in view of the runaway figures that have dogged Russia for years. The Yeltsin government says it hopes to slash the rate of inflation to no more than 2 percent a month over the next two years.

The Yeltsin government has little choice but to proclaim such a goal, if it wants to win a critically needed $6.6 billion standby loan from the International Monetary Fund April 10.

After visiting Moscow recently, IMF head Michel Camdessus voiced optimism that Russia's economy was turning the corner. "There are good reasons to hope that growth will begin in the course of this year," he said. If that happens, "there is an excellent chance that Russia will achieve rapid growth of perhaps well over five percent a year over the next decade."

While the Russian economy indeed shows some encouraging signs, the political situation remains murky and unpredictable.

Despite his unpopularity and erratic personality, Mr. Yeltsin is without a credible challenger. The country has more than 50 registered political parties but they usually exist without any coherent platform or organization. Indeed, political apathy is one of the hallmarks of today's Russia.

This kind of political disinterest tends to benefit those with charisma and extremist ideas. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the sinister demagogue, seems to have peaked, but neo-communists are on the rise. They hope that Russians are so unhappy with the uncertainties of market economy experiments that they will follow the example of Poles, Hungarians and Lithuanians and restore communists as a political force of consequence.

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