Nizhny Novgorod, 24 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Last Friday, before Russian President Boris Yeltsin dismissed the entire government leadership in Moscow, his personal representative in the reformist region of Nizhny Novgorod was telling a group of visiting foreign journalists that Yeltsin's reforms were being undercut from below.
Yuri Lebedev, Yeltsin's representative in Nizhny Novgorod, said that last December, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin reported to the president that all of the federal wage arrears had been paid up.
However, he said, First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, the former reformist governor of Nizhny Novgorod, told Yeltsin it wasn't true. He said local, regional and oblast officials had misled the federal government, pointing to 45,000 million rubles still owed to federal employees in his old oblast alone.
Nemtsov was proved right, said Lebedev, but it is a problem that has kept Yeltsin's reforms from moving ahead. Nemtsov, as part of the Chernomyrdin government, was dismissed Monday. Yeltsin said the shake-up was needed to bring "more energy and efficiency to economic reforms, to give them an additional impetus, a new impulse."
The journalists, including RFE/RL's economics correspondent from Washington, had been visiting various sites in Russia and other nations to report on privatization.
Presidential representative Lebedev said that Yeltsin was shocked on recent trips around the country to find that the pace of reform -- and the positive or negative impacts on the people themselves -- depended far more on what local authorities did or didn't do.
When Yeltsin visited the Ivanovo oblast last year, said Lebedev, he was "shocked" to find that while local authorities did nothing to advance reforms, they blamed every failure on Moscow.
"If some chicken factory was not working, then Yeltsin was to blame for it," was the attitude he encountered said Lebedev. "If the collective farm was not working -- was quite destroyed -- then it was the government of the federation at fault."
Only last October, said Lebedev, Yeltsin was in Nizhny Novgorod to attend a trade fair. At a lunch with governors from several nearby regions, Yeltsin emphasized that while he was "fighting against the Duma" in Moscow, it was up to the local administrations to push ahead with reforms on the regional level.
The president's office has begun preparing internal reports comparing progress in the various regions and oblasts in an attempt to get a better handle on the situation. While the reports show that Yeltsin's reforms have been ill-served by many local administrations, he said, they also show that it is on this level where the most advanced reforms have been made.
In fact, said Lebedev, the reason there are such very hot debates in the Duma over private land ownership is the deputies' "understanding" that oblasts like Nizhny Novgorod may act first and leave the federal legislature out of the decision making process.
Lebedev says it has only been in recent months that Yeltsin has come to appreciate just how important regional leadership is to the success of reforms.
"Now that he has traveled much in different regions and in different parts of the country, he came to the conclusion that we (in Nizhny Novgorod) are far advanced, are just on the front border compared with the other regions," said Lebedev.
When the president visited the nearby Kirov oblast in January, said Lebedev, he "came to the conclusion that it was as if he were in Nizhny Novgorod some 15 to 20 years ago comparing the situation."
There again, the president's representative said, Yeltsin found that while local authorities were effectively blocking reforms, they were telling the people that the central government in Moscow was responsible for all the tough times.
Lebedev said Yeltsin is convinced that the reforms will prevail despite the problems. But a big hurdle remains the lack of understanding of the concept of private ownership by farmers and peasants especially, he said. That requires government officials and leaders at every level to explain the ideas underlying the reforms.
That may be the kind of thing Yeltsin himself had in mind when he said on Monday that the government was "lacking dynamism and initiative, new outlooks, fresh approaches and ideas," without which a powerful breakthrough in the economy is impossible. Yeltsin's representative in Nizhny Novgorod says that breakthrough will come when the people really understand the power of private ownership.