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Jewish World Review / August 28, 1998 / 6 Elul, 5758

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Boris Yeltsin's mind:
a riddle pickled in an enigma

DO SOMETHING EVEN IF IT'S WRONG. Maybe that old sailor's axiom explains Boris Yeltsin's latest 180-degree tack. Nothing else does, including another vodka binge. For no drunk would do anything so mundane: The Soviet president has just reappointed the same prime minister he fired five months ago. It's like Bill Clinton deciding to appoint Bernie Nussbaum his new/old counsel.

Imagined or not,
Yelstin has missed the mark ---
big time!
Five months ago, Boris the Mad replaced Viktor Chernomyrdin, a Leonid Brezhnev without the charm, as his prime minister. As a replacement, the always surprising Russian president chose an antiseptic young banker because, said Mr. Yeltsin, he wanted change. He must have wanted it in the worst way, because that's how he got it. Under this bright new, Western-approved reformist premier, Sergei Kiriyenko, the Russian economy has gone from bleak to catastrophic.

The young banker, who's clearly no politician, was supposed to be able to carry out unpopular reforms because he had no constituency to offend. He did just that -- and offended everybody. The unpopularity of a reform, it turns out, is no guarantee that it'll work.

Premier Kiriyenko's latest brainstorm has been to devalue the ruble, as if it weren't sinking fast enough, and to let it float a bit -- to the bottom. Right now it seems headed for the ocean floor. Nope, not exactly an economic revival.

Maybe the International Monetary Fund would approve of this devaluation and the austerity it has made even more austere, but the Russians were less than enthusiastic. And understandably so. They're the ones who must bear the brunt of all this theoretically fine, but practically disastrous, reform.

Why is it that when struggling economies dutifully follow the sage advice of the International Monetary Fund (devalue and be damned) they don't get out of economic trouble, but further in? See Indonesia.

And now Russia seems headed the same way as Indonesia and much of the rest of Asia: straight over the cliff. So Boris Yeltsin decided to do something, even if it was wrong, and even if it was the same wrong thing he'd done once before. Namely, bring back the ponderous Viktor Chernomyrdin and the economy of inertia. At least the free fall shouldn't be as rapid under a stodgy administrator who still thinks -- well, plods -- like the Soviet apparatchik he once was.

Suddenly old party boss Chernomyrdin started to look good, the way a recession does when compared with a depression. Turning the clock back to mere inertia can sound like progress when you're whizzing toward sheer disaster.

Moral: Not everything that works in the West may work in the East. Whoever said never the twain shall meet may have understood a thing or two about the relevance of culture to economics. The happy notion that Russia could simply replace dictatorship with democracy, and a command economy with private enterprise, always did have its limitations. One might as well try slipping a computerized 16-valve under the hood in place of an old slant-six -- with no thought about what else has to be changed to make the old jalopy run. In this case, nobody, at least nobody in charge, seems to have considered the traditions, expectations and mentality of a whole people. As if the economy could be divorced from the old culture. Or the old power structure.

Not all the whiz kids in the world, including a bright young Russian banker suddenly proclaimed prime minister, may be a match for the natural skepticism -- and passive aggression -- of the Russian people. Align both the country's peasantry and its power structure against a leader, and who's left for him to lead -- Russia's still meager technocracy?

And so Boris Yeltsin did something if only to be doing something, and even if it was the same old thing. Going in a circle is better than heading straight down, the way a tailspin is preferable to a straight-down dive. Boris Yeltsin may have lost his popularity, but he still has his wile. He knows that change, any change, can keep hope, or at least interest, alive. So he's taken a step -- even if it's a step backward.

Anyone who thinks this kind of politics -- and economics -- is limited to mad Russians might recall what an American president did in the depths of the Depression, when any change would have been an improvement. Not even Franklin Roosevelt stuck with his New Deal, or at least not with all of it. He, too, changed course 180 degrees, and more than once.

FDR abandoned his loose talk about balanced budgets when confronted by a country on its back. And he dropped even the centerpiece of his economic policy -- the National Recovery Act, with its blue eagle and price floors -- when it didn't work out, constitutionally or economically. Time after time, FDR headed in new and sometimes old directions, following no policy but bold and persistent experimentation.

Franklin Roosevelt didn't succeed in ending the Depression so much as in outlasting it. And he did it in no small part by keeping the country hopeful, or at least interested. ("What in the world is That Man going to do next?'') There's no telling what Boris the Mad will do next, either. He keeps the world guessing, even mystified, and therefore involved. Perplexity beats despair any time. Anything does.

FDR was a lot better at pulling aces out of his sleeve, or maybe just jokers, than Boris Yeltsin is. But this Russian joker knows that consistency is the hobgoblin of small, unimaginative minds. Sometimes going backward is the only way to go forward, or at least survive till one can. So now this Russian president and perplexity has reinstated an old workhorse who's done nothing but plod. Yet at least under Viktor Chernomyrdin's non-leadersip, some reforms were made despite his opposition, while his replacement gave all reforms a bad name.

When this country's president leaves his own chaos for Russia's next week (at last Bill Clinton will get a real vacation), he'll find that there are degrees of chaos in the world, and that Russia's is the serious kind. Ours is only a crisis of leadership; Russia's is a crisis of the whole system -- political and economic, legal and philosophical.

To quote one Moscow daily, Sevodnya: "You can poke as much fun as you like at American moral hypocrisy and the desire to drag out the presidential dirty laundry before a wide public. But in all this, note one obvious fact. If the president feels obliged to explain himself to the nation on live television even for adultery, the nation can be calm about the future of the national currency.''


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8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
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7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
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7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate