Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 5

Profile of Boris Nemtsov: Russia’s newest first deputy premier

By Yelena Dikun

Last month, Boris Nemtsov was appointed first deputy premier in Russia’s reshuffled government. Since 1991, he had been governor of Nizhny Novgorod oblast, flagship region of Russia’s economic reforms. Nemtsov’s record for efficient and honest government had for a long time put him high up in the popularity polls, but his move to Moscow caused him to leap into first place as Russia’s most popular politician. Many now see the 38-year-old former physicist as a likely candidate for Russian president in the next century.

During Nemtsov’s five years as governor, Nizhny Novgorod oblast became a model province, according to all the indicators. It can justly claim to be the only region in Russia in which economic reforms have been pursued consistently. Today it is one of only a handful of Russia’s 89 provinces that pay more money into the state budget than they receive in return.

Boris Nemtsov grew up in Gorky (as Nizhny Novgorod was known from 1932 until 1990). He trained as a physicist at Gorky State University, worked in a research institute, and defended his candidate’s dissertation at the age of 25.

Together with many other young scholars, Nemtsov became involved in political activity in the early perestroika days. In the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, he was one of the leaders of Gorky’s first protest movement, which succeeded in halting construction of the Gorky nuclear power station.

In 1989, Nemtsov ran for people’s deputy of the USSR. All the most "seditious" ideas of the time were in his program: a multi-party system, equality of all forms of property [a coded way of expressing support for private enterprise], and direct election of the president. But after a series of abusive articles in the press, Nemtsov did not make it past the district assembly to the elections.

In 1990, Nemtsov was again nominated to run for parliament, this time of the Russian Republic. His slogan then was "Build churches and roads." There was stiff competition in the elections — 12 candidates for a single seat — but Nemtsov was elected as a member of the Democratic Russia bloc.

In the Russian Supreme Soviet, Nemtsov worked on the Legislation Committee. There, the future governor was noticed by future president. When, in 1991, Yeltsin ran in Russia’s first election, Nemtsov was one of his closest associates. He took part in the defense of the White House during the putsch of August 1991. After that, his political career skyrocketed.

Today, Nemtsov describes himself as follows: "I am a liberal in economics and an advocate of a strong state in politics."

In the fall of 1991, Yeltsin appointed Nemtsov as governor of Nizhny Novgorod oblast. This is how Nemtsov recalls the event: "Yeltsin fired everyone who had supported the coup leaders, including all of the leaders in Nizhny Novgorod. And since he knew no one in Nizhny except me, he decided to appoint me. But his parting words were odd: ‘You’re young, of course. You’re just 31. I’ll appoint you for a couple of months. If you don’t work out, I’ll fire you.’ Somehow, that inspired me." In December 1995, Nemtsov won popular election as governor with 57.8 percent of the vote.

When Nemtsov started out in Nizhny Novgorod, he had a clear plan of action, which he laid before the citizens. First of all, he would straighten things out with trade–which was monopolized, criminalized, and corrupt. He closed the local trade administrations which until then had managed the stores, and required each individual store to become a independent business, responsible for its own affairs. He called in the store directors (there were two thousand of them) and said: "Now you’re going to work independently. If, God forbid, you run out of milk, cottage cheese, or bread, you’ll have big problems." Probably out of fear, they began to do something.

Then, a program of small-scale privatization was carried out: Nizhny was the first region in Russia to sell off state-owned stores. Goods soon appeared on the shelves. Nemtsov supported entrepreneurs, including collective farm workers who wanted to build their own mills, open sausage plants, or improve the production of cheese and yogurt. With "mixed" (private and government) money, 123 processing plants were built. As a result, three birds were killed with one stone: agriculture became profitable, the market was saturated with goods, and the monopoly over the processing sector was destroyed.

Next, Nemtsov came up with a program of support for the poor and the elderly: sixty homes were built for the aged, and subsidies were introduced for people with low incomes. Other programs followed. Trucks were sold at open auctions, creating a powerful trucking sector and solving the problem of supplying the city with milk, bread and gasoline.

Next, land reform was begun; 300,000 people received their own land. The center of Nizhny was renovated, and the city’s former, pre-revolutionary appearance was restored. New markets and fairs opened, schools were built, bridges were erected, and work began on an international airport. Independent publishing houses and television companies mushroomed.

Nemtsov’s "Road to Every Town" program is virtually complete. His next task is to continue the road to every doorstep. There is a striking story connected with this. Someone started a rumor that the governor was not spending billions of rubles on building roads out in the boonies just out of the goodness of his heart: he was doing it so that he could dump radioactive waste there.

Wherever Nemtsov went, it was always the same story: "We don’t need your road. You want to turn our village into a cemetery." According to Nemtsov: "People don’t believe that we could pay attention to a village, where no one but ten old ladies live, unless we had an ulterior motive. They don’t realize that, once the road is built, their lives will get better."

But people greeted his "Our Revival" program — the restoration of Nizhny Novgorod’s churches — with approval. One hundred churches have been restored which were once in horrible condition, and as many more are scheduled for restored in the future.

In 1992, Nemtsov invited his old friend, the liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky, to come to Nizhny. Yavlinsky and his team worked out an economic recovery plan for the oblast and successfully realized everything that had been planned: regional loans, privately-owned pension funds, targeted social programs and a new way of compiling statistics. "Yavlinsky proved in practice that each region could develop according to its own specific rules, within the framework of the law," says Nemtsov.

In Nemtsov’s opinion, which is supported by practical observations, "Yavlinsky’s 500 Days Law" — that it takes that much time to move from the conceptual stage to its first fruits — really applies. For example, Nemtsov wanted to extend the telephone service throughout Nizhny Novgorod oblast and came up with the idea of telephone loans. The idea was that a person would buy securities from the Nizhny Novgorod government. As soon as he or she had bought a certain amount, the authorities would have to install a telephone within three to six months, depending on certain conditions.

"The first securities appeared 500 days after the first session on this theme and, in another 500 days, the first telephone was installed" Nemtsov recalls. "And I don’t know of any other program where we could have done it any faster. Even if I held meetings every day, punished everyone, and scolded them."

Nemtsov’s administration worked under conditions of openness. The press was invited even to those sessions at which controversial, divisive questions were discussed. All the programs launched by Nemtsov went through informal hearings. He himself spent 80 percent of his working time explaining to the apparatus, heads of local administration, factory directors and collective farm chairmen what had to be done and why, where it would lead, and what difficulties could arise.

"In my view, [Yegor] Gaidar’s team failed because it did not take the trouble to explain to people what it was doing," Nemtsov explains. "I told Yegor: ‘Now they’re all cursing you because you’re reducing the value of their savings. You ought to have explained to them that all that money in their bank-books was worthless because there was nothing to buy with it.’ He replied: ‘I am the country’s hired director, with the title of prime minister. The one who hired me is the one who should do the explaining.’ I don’t agree. Unfortunately, nowadays nobody in the government explains anything to the people anymore…"

Russia’s regional governors are in an ambiguous position. On the one hand, the governor must be loyal to the center, if only to ensure that the center takes account of the region’s interests. On the other hand, the governor must be at least a little bit opposed to the central government; otherwise, he will not be accepted at home.

Nemtsov succeeded better than anyone else in maneuvering between the Scylla and Charybdis of central and local government. He was accepted in Moscow, yet he was also supported back in Nizhny. Nemtsov explains this phenomenon as follows: "Every day, every governor faces a complex choice between conscience and expediency. He always has to choose one or the other. It is not a pleasant situation, but one can get used to anything. My own position is simple. I try to remain true to myself. I proceed from the assumption that bosses come and go, but Nizhny Novgorod will remain. It would trouble me more to have to live with going against my conscience than it would to say openly what I think about everything and get clipped on the back of the head for it."

His years in Nizhny Novgorod saw Nemtsov join the small number of leaders able to define and influence federal policy. For example, he proposed the introduction of constitutional amendments limiting the power of the president. ("One man should not have the authority to turn the country upside down. Even if he is a monarch, he should be a limited one.") Nemtsov appealed to Russian businessmen to buy property in Sevastopol, and thus obtain influence over the resolution of the Black Sea Fleet issue. He organized primary elections in Nizhny Novgorod for the parliamentary and presidential elections, to enable the reformers, weakened by fratricidal squabbles, to unite behind a single candidate. He suggested that it might be necessary to increase personal income tax. And he was the first to set an example, by filing a tax declaration himself.

Although Boris Yeltsin has hinted more than once that he sees his namesake as his possible successor, Nemtsov has had at times to face the anger of the man he refers to as "the tsar." This happened for example in January 1996, when Nemtsov appealed to all Russians to speak out against the bloody war in Chechnya.

He collected millions of signatures from all over the country, protesting against the war, and outlined his plan to the president: Yeltsin should go to Ivanovskaya Square in the Kremlin, where mountains of letters would be piled up, and proclaim that he could not ignore the will of the people and that he would, in the course of two weeks, do all he could to end the war. Yeltsin seemed to like the idea, and Nemtsov was convinced he would go along with it. But then, ten days later, Yeltsin suddenly announced that he wouldn’t go along with any of Nemtsov’s "populist games. " The governor fell into disgrace, and the war in Chechnya grew even more bitter and senseless.

Later, the well-known movie director Nikita Mikhalkov, who is one of Nemtsov’s friends, told him: "You’re young, curly-headed, and stupid. There hasn’t been a single instance in Russian history in which a governor has told a tsar that he was wrong to go to war. Governors have always been servile toward the authorities. And here you come and start rocking the boat." And yet, when the Russian president flew to Chechnya in spring 1996, the only regional leader he took with him was Boris Nemtsov.

Nemtsov has a complex attitude towards the Russian president. On the one hand, Nemtsov understands quite well that he owes his political career entirely to Yeltsin and he supported him without reservation in the presidential elections; on the other hand, this support, like that of a majority of democrats, is to a great extent forced.

Like everyone else, Nemtsov has had to choose the lesser of two evils. "I see Yeltsin as a real Russian tsar. He is like a father, or now, perhaps, more like a grandfather. He is a big man with a big heart, who doesn’t always think about the consequences of his actions. He is not mean; he doesn’t hold grudges, and he is quite resourceful, when his own neck is on the line," Nemtsov concludes.

Translated by Mark Eckert