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Russia: Analysis From Washington--No Honeymoon For Yeltsin

  • Paul Goble

Washington, August 7 (RFE/RL) -- Boris Yeltsin, who will be sworn in for his second term as Russian president Friday, will have no honeymoon at home or abroad. Indeed, the first 100 days of his second term may be among the most difficult of his rule.

Among the domestic issues clamoring for Yeltsin's attention are the following:

The war in Chechnya.

As the Chechen resistance is demonstrating this week, that conflict is not about to be resolved. Yeltsin promised peace during the election campaign, but his unwillingness to make concessions and his lack of control over at least some local Russian commanders has reignited the war. And the next few days are likely to provide a bloody backdrop to Yeltsin's second inaugural.

A banking crisis.

In the last week alone, the Russian central bank has pulled the licenses of a number of Russia's 2,100 smaller banks and taken direct control of one of the larger ones. While no one is predicting a banking crisis yet, such turmoil in the financial sector will do little to instill the public confidence needed for the economic take-off Yeltsin has promised.

A revived Communist opposition.

Despite Gennady Zyuganov's loss to Yeltsin in the election just past and despite expectations that the communists would fragment as a result, the Russian Communist Party has pulled itself together as the opposition force, one that will certainly make Yeltsin's life difficult, as it did last week when it killed new concessions to the West in the energy sector.

A possible wave of nation-wide strikes.

While some Russian miners went back to work this week, other miners are calling for a nation-wide strike to force the government to pay almost $1,000 million in back wages. Such strikes could easily derail the government's economic program and make it virtually impossible for Moscow to meet IMF and World Bank-mandated targets.

A continued deterioration in living standards for many Russians.

Itar-Tass reported yesterday, for example, that forest fires in Siberia are the result of hungry citizens going into the woods to gather berries and mushrooms. And on the same day, the Russian authorities announced a dramatic shortfall in the production of tea, a shortfall likely to be paralleled in other crops as well.

But the problems Yeltsin will face abroad during this period may be even more daunting.

He will have to deal with NATO expansion and with the consequences that will have on Eastern Europe and on Russia and Russia's immediate neighbors. Many Russians will demand a response if NATO moves East, and Yeltsin may be confronted with the difficult task of trying to fashion one that Russia can afford financially and politically.

Yeltsin will have to reassure Western bankers and investors that he really is committed to reform and will not, as he has in the past, retreat from that position when the heat appears to be off.

The Russian president will have to demonstrate both Russian power in order to keep the conservatives who helped elect him happy and Russian cooperation in order not to frighten off reformers at home or the West in general.

Dealing with any one of these problems would be beyond the capacity of most political leaders. Dealing with all of them at once will certainly challenge even the politically skillful Yeltsin.

More important, such a conjunction of problems almost certainly guarantees that the next 100 days will be bumpy ones for Yeltsin, for Russia, and for the world.