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Russia at the crossroads


Washington -- REMEMBER Russia? Recall when dealings between Washington and Moscow regularly took center stage? Recollect the days when we worried about the Cold War?

At times it seems as if the Bosnian crisis and other foreign problems have eclipsed those bad old days. Many days go by now without Russia making it onto the main news agenda.

While from a news standpoint, Russia remains on the back burner, it seemed to make sense to listen to Grigory Yavlinsky, a Russian politician who, insiders say, stands a good chance of succeeding President Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin next year.

At 43, Mr. Yavlinsky is a handsome fellow with a mass of curly dark hair and a paunch that perhaps reflects too many World Bank dinners. An economist who speaks English, he first came to the fore as the author of Mikhail Gorbachev's 1990 abortive "500-day plan" to reform the Soviet economy. But he quit as the Russian deputy prime minister after less than 100 days when it became clear that the Soviet leader had no stomach to implement a free market.

Today, Mr. Yavlinsky gives due credit to Messrs. Gorbachev and Yeltsin for making it possible for democratic reformers like himself -- who espouse open markets, sound money, private property and civil rights -- to freely press their case in the motherland. But those key breakthroughs, Mr. Yavlinsky is quick to add, will hardly serve to satisfy the next generation, which has never lived under communist rule.

"Russia is at a crossroads," Mr. Yavlinsky told a group of academics and State Department types during a brief visit here. "The coming elections may be the last chance for us to find the right way for my country. The trend, which we are fighting, is toward an oligarchy and a very dangerous criminal state."

As Mr. Yavlinsky sees it, the Yeltsin crowd, which still remains very much in charge of the store, "wants to leave everything as it is, including a huge bureaucracy and state monopolies over all big industries, like oil and gas."

Arrayed against them is the communist bloc and the reformers -- themselves split into many factions. While Mr. Yavlinsky feels the old Soviet system could never be put back, he also thinks that some people would love to try it, thereby making a mess of things.

Liberalization, he says, would bring on bankruptcies and other forms of instant economic pain. But, in the long run, it's the only way to go, he argues.

In the end, elections will decide the issue: first, in December, for a new parliament, and then next year for a new president. For them to work, Mr. Yavlinsky says Russia must "avoid the very famous Stalin formula: it is not important who would win; it's important who would count."

Andrew J. Glass is chief of the Cox Newspapers Washington Bureau.

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