Yeltsin Offers Populist ‘Cure’ in Platform
Borrowing a campaign message from his friend Bill Clinton, President Boris N. Yeltsin on Friday told Russian voters “I feel your pain” and wrote out a 127-page prescription for full recovery by the year 2000.
The document, centrist in orientation, is a compendium of costly populist pledges made during Yeltsin’s run for reelection, along with new ideas for fulfilling some of them without busting the country’s anti-inflation budget.
It projects a second Yeltsin presidency as a four-year period of peace, stability, modest economic growth and declining inflation, and it promises to complete Russia’s traumatic passage from communism to the free market with rising personal incomes and no massive unemployment.
“In the last years, we managed to fill our stores,” Yeltsin said, summarizing his program in a 25-minute speech to supporters in the Ural Mountain city of Perm. “Now we must fill pocketbooks.
“I feel your pain, the pain of the country,” he said. “But this is the pain of a recovering organism.”
Facing a strong Communist challenge in the June 16 election, the 65-year-old president has fought from behind to take a narrow lead in most opinion polls by stumping vigorously across Russia, reaching out to voters with empathy and promising them the world.
The platform he outlined Friday differs sharply from the one published three days earlier by Communist Party candidate Gennady A. Zyuganov in that it rejects the challenger’s call for a return to Soviet-era controls over wages, prices and production.
But it embraces many elements of the Communists’ social welfare program to compensate for the plunge in living standards since 1992, when Russia’s first freely elected leader abolished price controls, triggering inflation that shriveled people’s life savings to almost nothing.
Yeltsin promises to raise the minimum wage and pension, each equal to $15 per month, to match the officially defined subsistence level, now $75. While moving toward a health insurance plan to make private medicine affordable, he pledges to guarantee free high-quality care for children and pregnant women. Spending on education, he declared, will suffer no more cuts.
“In four years, social spending per capita will be higher [in Russia] than anywhere in Eastern Europe,” Yeltsin said. “And any middle-class family, above all a young family, will be able to buy a home of its own through easy-term credit.”
His most lavish promises would compensate Russians, gradually over four years, for savings lost to past inflation and for investments lost to swindlers in the nascent, poorly regulated financial market.
Both compensation schemes, which would cost billions of dollars, have been pushed for years by Communists and other critics of the government but rejected by reformers around Yeltsin as inflationary.
Yeltsin’s plan tries to meet their objection by proposing to finance the savings compensation with government bonds and the repayment of stolen investments with income from the ongoing privatization of state property. He also calls for heavier borrowing abroad to bridge the budget deficit.
The president said this would allow the government to achieve a balanced budget by 2000, with annual inflation dwindling to 5% from last year’s 131%. While the target conforms to terms of Russia’s $10-billion loan this year from the International Monetary Fund, the plan lacks enough detail to show that it is attainable.
For example, it does not estimate the cost of one of Yeltsin’s most popular promises--to stop sending draftees to war zones by the end of the year and to abolish military conscription within four years. Critics in the Defense Ministry say this will require a professional army three to five times more costly than the current one.
Yeltsin appeared to sweep aside his biggest political liability this week by achieving a cease-fire accord with separatist rebels in Chechnya, and on Friday he promised that “there will be no more civil or ethnic unrest in Russia.”
Although the cease-fire is due to take effect today, weekend talks on a lasting settlement of the 17-month-old conflict were abruptly postponed after rebels claimed that they had come under attack.
Few in Russia expect a reelected Yeltsin to fulfill all his campaign promises.
Economics Minister Yevgeny G. Yasin warned a week ago that the president’s pledge to pay all overdue pensions and wages to government workers “is absolutely unrealistic.”
And much of what Yeltsin offered Friday--tax reform, a land code with full property rights, a war on crime, special credits for small entrepreneurs, job training for workers at dying factories--has been promised for years but never delivered, for lack of money or political will.
“His main profession is to give out promises,” Zyuganov said Friday.
The platform may be more useful as a compass of Yeltsin’s future course, and it points to dead center.
The overall thrust is reformist and pro-Western. But the platform pledges new protection against imports for some domestic producers, especially in the food industry, and warns the North Atlantic Treaty Organization against expanding to Russia’s western border.