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Russia: How To Fumble A Government Reorganization

Moscow, 21 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - On the radio in many American country towns, you can still hear a popular old song that gives impeccable advice. "Watch the doughnut, not the hole," runs the refrain.

Commentators who have been trumpeting the appointments of the new government as a triumph of reform have managed to blow the hole out of all proportion. They've missed the doughnut entirely.

In the first place, even Anatoly Chubais has admitted the fumbling of the announcements, and the continuing delay in completing the cabinet, are due to the fact the government is so unpopular, and its policies so uncertain, no one wants to join.

Governor Konstantin Titov, for example, is more popular in his constituency than Governor Boris Nemtsov in his; he won re-election by a bigger margin in Samara than Nemtsov in Nizhni Novgorod. Samara is also more prosperous than Nizhni Novgorod, contributes more revenue to the federal budget, and draws fewer federal budget transfers. Concomitantly, Samara delivered fewer votes to the Communist Party in the presidential election. Titov was the obvious choice to play foil to First Deputy Prime Minister Chubais.

But he said no.

In the second place, Nemtsov's condition for accepting the job is plainly illegal. That he should ask to retain his governorship and seat in the Federation Council demonstrates as much disregard for the constitutional separation of executive and legislative powers, as President Yeltsin's readiness to give Nemtsov what he wants. And what confidence does Nemtsov's proviso suggest he has in the government he is joining? Not more than Titov's, whose political propriety deserves more respect than Nemtsov's excess of ambition.

When the details of the reorganization are looked at carefully, it's difficult to see why the elevation of Vladimir Bulgak makes the reform ideologues any happier. With the telecommunications portfolio, Bulgak is the longest-serving minister in the Russian government; he started in his post before the collapse of the Soviet Union, before Chubais had left St Petersburg.

Bulgak's performance was so unfamiliar to Yeltsin that, a year ago, when the President started his re-election campaign, he announced he was thinking of firing Bulgak, blaming him for failures of regional telephone service. Since then, Bulgak presided over the revision of the terms of the Svyazinvest privatization -- something no one can describe as a reform, unless he happens to work for the Russian banks whose stake in the deal has grown remarkably. If the downfall of the "natural monopolies" is the new government's objective, Bulgak can hardly be the man to pull it off, at least not in the telecommunications sector.

Still, in that sector, Bulgak is trusted and respected by his professional peers. It may be someone's idea to stretch that to cover the entire science and technology sector, whose complaint against the government is a very different one. The complaint is that Russia's science and technology are being starved to death. Bulgak's experience in the comparatively rich telecommunications business isn't likely to fill that hole.

The absorbtion of the Ministry of Industry (MinProm) by the Economics Ministry, to be headed by Deputy Prime Minister Yakov Urinson, is, likewise, less fresh doughnut, more stale hole.

MinProm is only eight months old, so it can hardly be blamed for doing, or not doing anything. In fact, Deputy Minister Serafim Afonin has probably been more active in defence of Russia's privatized steelmakers from the protectionism of Russia's trading partners in the U.S., Europe and Asia, than any other top official. Deputy Minister Igor Yusufov has also begun pushing through the first real reforms of the Russian gold industry.

The Presidential decree that reorganizes their efforts allows Minister Yury Bespalov to keep his rank, though his title demotes him to Urinson's deputy. Two months have been set aside for the deputy ministers to settle how their new departments will run. The sloppiness and indecisiveness with which this reorganization has been started discredits the government's new leadership.

John Helmer is a Moscow-based journalist and regular contributor to RFE/RL.