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The New Russia's Bad Old Instincts


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THE NEW RUSSIA'S BAD OLD INSTINCTS

To Western eyes, the elections held in Russia on Dec. 12 produced ominous results. Yes, Boris Yeltsin succeeded in obtaining approval of the draft constitution and thus can claim constitutional legitimacy. But the elections of candidates backing the party of ultranationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky raised the specter of a great leap backward into a new and even uglier version of the former Soviet empire or even the Czarist imperium.

To counteract this strong and growing extremist threat, all reform parties must stop their bickering and band together. And it's time for doctrinaire government reformers such as Yegor Gaidar and Boris Federov and their Western advisers to ease up and recognize that many Russians voted for the extremists as a protest against "shock therapy."

Western economic advisers such as Harvard University's Jeffrey Sachs argue that their policies of shock therapy never actually had a chance to work because the central bank sabotaged economic reform. True enough. But the perception in Russia is that a rigid reformist ideology has dealt a body blow to the economy of a once-great nation.

Now, instead of struggling to meet International Monetary Fund targets for fiscal discipline, the government should focus on designing a sturdy social safety net for pensioners and the unemployed. Instead of simply cutting loose newly privatized companies, the government should help shore up select companies with government aid. Instead of letting new businesses develop in a haphazard free-for-all, the government must dedicate itself to rooting out corruption and controlling the growth of grganized crime's influence in business. Instead of focusing on the center, the government must design taxes and regulations so that more power devolves to the regions.

None of this means that economic stabilization--the achievement of monetary and fiscal discipline--should be abandoned as an objective. But hard and fast rules for achieving that objective should be eased. The reformers must coalesce on these issues and rob their critics of their ammunition. Otherwise, Russia faces a far more troubling prospect than temporal budget overruns: the rise of a revanchist leadership, intent on restoring to Russia its empire. Fascists can be democratically elected, too.


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