Boris Yeltsin, at this writing still the president of Russia, has an approval rating in the low single digits. He has company at the bottom of the polls, however–his erstwhile comrade Mikhail Gorbachev, president of the Soviet Union at the time of its collapse and dissolution, may be even less esteemed than he. So perhaps it is fitting that when members of Russia’s latest government, still taking shape under Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, gather in the Kremlin, they could organize a chapter of the Gorbachev Alumni, Chowder and Marching Society.
Primakov himself was a Gorbachev protege, named chairman of the Supreme Soviet (parliament) and candidate member of the Politburo in late 1989, the height of Gorbachev’s power. One of Primakov’s first appointees, Yuri Maslyukov, was Gorbachev’s chief economic planner and a full member of his Politburo. Primakov’s new Central Bank president, Viktor Gerashchenko, held similar positions under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, earning the title “worst central banker in the world” from goggle-eyed G-7 counterparts.
Ministers less closely associated with Gorbachev are linked to Viktor Chernomyrdin, the prime minister whom Yeltsin fired last March and parliament rejected in August. The three new deputy prime ministers are all member of Russia Is Our Home, the political movement Chernomyrdin designed to propel him to the presidency in 2000. One of them, Aleksandr Shokhin, is the RIOH leader in the Duma, parliament’s lower house.
This is a government of those who have tried and failed. It is the result of a prolonged political stalemate that prevents formation of a consensus around any figure or coherent set of policies. It is the result as well of weak political institutions designed largely by Boris Yeltsin to perpetuate Boris Yeltsin’s power. With the president physically and politically exhausted, the system barely functions.
As the political crisis drags on–Russia has scarcely had a government since Chernomyrdin’s ouster last March–the dreadful economic situation continues to deteriorate. To the extent the government has a plan at all, it is a simple and destructive one: Print money to pay off back wages and other bills owed to the general population; then print more money to redeem ruble-denominated debt as it falls due. The hard-currency debt, meanwhile, can be left to rise like dough: eventually the creditors will roll it over, stretch it out, “restructure” it, and call it cake. With the post of minister of finance still vacant, the details may not become clear for some time, but the outlines are already apparent.
How bad are conditions in Russia? The state owes pensioners and workers 36 billion rubles. That would be $6 billion at the July exchange rate, less than US$3 billion now. Private companies owe billions more–arrears are typically three to six months at every level of business, for every type of payment. Inflation is already running at 40 percent per month, or 5,700 percent per year.
This current crisis comes after years of decline have reduced Russian living standards from wretched to appalling. Between 1990 and 1994, as David Satter has pointed out, male life expectancy fell by more than six years. It now stands at 57, the lowest in the industrial world. Over two million people are believed infected with tuberculosis; the charitable organization Doctors without Borders fears the Russian epidemic may spread to other countries. Cholera, polio and plague have reappeared. The winter will surely see energy shortages, and the grain harvest, forecast at 56 million tons, is the worst in forty years.