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My Conversations With Yegor Gaidar

Yegor Gaidar at RIA Novosti's TV studio in Moscow on December 15
I met Yegor Gaidar in early 1990. He was the editor of the economics department at "Pravda" and I was looking for a job. Yegor spent a long time explaining to me what his department was doing, what was allowed and what wasn't. "I'm outta here," I decided to myself, but I didn't have time to tell him before he unexpectedly concluded with: "You don't want to work here."

Two years later, when he was named acting prime minister, I interviewed him for the first time. It was late in the evening in the government office complex on Staraya Ploshchad. The corridors of the building were dimly lit. There was no receptionist; there were no guards.

A portrait of Lenin hung on the wall of his ordinary, bureaucrat's office. "You didn't take that down?" I asked. "They couldn't," he answered. He told how the American economists Jeffrey Sachs and Rudiger Dornbusch tried to cope with Lenin when they came to visit him. But they couldn't budge him -- the portrait was fastened to the wall for all time. And Gaidar began his reform work under its gaze.

While we were talking that night, the telephone rang constantly. Gaidar was busy with everything -- money, bread, gasoline. He practically never left the office in those days. After I had spoken to him for more than an hour, I asked him if he had anything for a headache. "I don't," he said. "My head doesn't ache."

In later years, we spoke together many times: In 1996, after he'd written a letter to President Boris Yeltsin urging him not to run for reelection. In 1998, after the Russian government defaulted. In 2001, after Vladimir Putin became president. The last time was in 2007, when we discussed former oligarch Boris Berezovsky and his role in Russian politics.

Today, when I read through these old interviews, I suddenly remembered that they required almost no correction. He answered directly, formulated his thoughts carefully, and didn't get bogged down in particulars. And this wasn't because he knew how to speak eloquently. It was because he knew how to think.

Here are some excerpts from those interviews:


Lyudmila Telen: In the 1990s, we Russians lived through a second, great revolution. It was largely bloodless, but nonetheless it was a real revolution with all its consequences. For some reason the Russian intelligentsia has always had a romantic view of revolutions. Do you?

Yegor Gaidar:
No. For me, revolution is a misfortune.

Telen: But you were one of the central figures.

I know. But that doesn't mean that I liked it. For me, that time was a real trial. I understood the logic of revolution and I understood that under such circumstances any government is fated to be weak.

Telen: You aren't trying to find a justification for what didn't turn out right?

Revolutionary governments are weak because their leaders are weak. Can we say that Oliver Cromwell was a weak politician? But he couldn't find the money to pay for his army. And Maximilien Robespierre was also strong, as were Lenin and Yeltsin. But their governments could not collect taxes or pay wages....

Telen: And what is the main reason?

Revolutionary governments are not backed by tradition. They can't govern the country the way it has been governed for the last 50 years or even the last 10 or one.

When we took over in the early 1990s, we were forced to govern in way that no one had ever governed before. And everyone had the right to ask: "What the hell are you doing here? Why are you issuing such orders?"

Telen: You have said that you picked your team -- and I quote -- "Not only on the basis of their understanding of macroeconomics" but also on their personal decency. But not everyone lived up to your expectations....

Not everyone, but many did. I made some mistakes out of the naivete that was part of the intelligentsia's consciousness of the 1990s.

Telen: What do you mean?

We thought that if a person was smart, educated, talented, then it stood to reason that he would also be honest. And in most cases, this is true. But not always.

Telen: Were there people you were forced to sever relations with because of this?


Telen: From your team?


Telen: And was that painful for you?

Yes, very. But there were about three dozen people determining economic policy in the 1990s and today I would gladly shake hands with most of them.

Telen: And do you remember the others, who were involved in major corruption scandals?

If you take the 50 biggest scandals of that type and look at who was involved, you'll see there were very few people from our team, even if you define "team" very broadly.

Telen: Try explaining that to the man on the street.

What do you mean? We began the reforms and so we took responsibility for them. After that, whenever some hanger-on taking over, say, the fisheries sector, starts stealing, then everyone is going to attribute it to the antipopulist course of Gaidar and [Anatoly] Chubais.

Telen: How much are you bothered when people say Gaidar and his team robbed Russia?

I'm not bothered. I remember Shurik's line from "Prisoner Of The Caucasus": "And did I destroy the church, too?"

Telen: And they answered him, "No, it was destroyed before you came -- in the 14th century."

By the time I took over the government, I understood perfectly that Russia had already been robbed. If back then the Central Bank had the reserves that the Central Bank has now, some $52 billion, the communists would have never ceded power. They ceded power because the reserves were at zero. They had no idea how to pay the debts, how to feed the people.

I am deeply convinced that what we did was correct. I understand the logic of my political opponents who want to lay all responsibility on me. But I don't suffer because of it.

Telen: How do your children react to these charges against "the antipopulist regime of Gaidar-Chubais"?

Each in his own way. I have many children.

Telen: Have they discussed this with you?


Telen: Why do you think that is?

It traumatizes them.


Telen: What were you hoping to achieve when you wrote to President Boris Yeltsin and asked him not to run for reelection? Or were you just making your own political position clear?

I'm not a megalomaniac and I don't think that my opinion could be decisive for the president. But I really did think there was some chance that he, in making that decision, would take my views into consideration.

Telen: How did the president react?

He wrote me a letter.

Telen: Did he get into a debate with you?

It was a personal letter and I don't want to discuss it.

Telen: Do you think that for him the decision to run for reelection was really centered on a desire to continue the reforms, whatever he understood that word to mean? Or was it just a struggle for power?

I don't know the answer to that question. But I have already said that the Boris Yeltsin of today is not the Boris Yeltsin that we knew in 1991 or 1993.

Telen: Maybe it isn't Yeltsin who has changed, but us? We wanted him to be a democrat and that's what we saw in him?

I didn't just watch the president on television. I worked rather closely with him. And I can see that he has changed considerably -- his circle of acquaintances, his style of interacting, the mechanisms for decision making. Some things -- I know for certain -- that were unthinkable then, have become reality today.

Telen: For instance?

The influence of people who have no formal positions in the government on basic decisions in areas where they have absolutely no competence.

Telen: But if Yeltsin and [Communist Party leader Gennady] Zyuganov go to a second round in the election, you won't vote for Yeltsin? Is that question settled for you, as a voter?

Yes, but I won't say exactly how it is decided. I will say that exactly what I will do if [nationalist politician Vladimir] Zhirinovsky and Zyuganov are in the second round. I will go to the polling station and cross out both their names.

Telen: Say Yeltsin wins reelection. Will he be able to cope with the flood of economic and social problems that will stem from his recent populist decisions as early as in June?

The consequences of those decisions will be felt very soon. In a standard situation, you could count on a lag period of about six months. But in Russia, experience shows, things happen differently. A pro-inflationary policy cannot be politically profitable here even in the short term. We'll feel the full impact of these problems even in May.

Telen: Are you confident that, in such a complex political situation, the government won't give in to the temptation to just skip the election? Many people say such ideas are being considered in the Kremlin.

First, not holding the election is absolutely unacceptable if we want Russia to develop democratically. Moreover, I categorically don't believe that any such gambit would be successful. Some people -- including some intelligent ones -- think there is such a way out. But there isn't. That gambit would result in complete failure that would only make heroes of the communists and open the way for them to return to power without any elections.

Telen: You think a Zyuganov victory in the election would be preferable?

To a Zyuganov victory without an election? Absolutely.


Telen: Is the situation under which the government of [Prime Minister Sergei] Kiriyenko working comparable to the situation in which your government began the reforms?

The conditions in which the current cabinet is working are simply velvet compared to what we faced. Kiriyenko's government, unlike ours, works in a country that actually exists with a financial system that works, with a single, functioning Central Bank that has significant hard-currency reserves. Compared to the problems that we had to solve, the current situation seems perfectly simple to me.


Telen: What is your attitude to wealth?

I know that wealth does not in itself bring happiness. I am engaged in extremely interesting work and would never trade that for a large fortune. There are people for whom it is important to have a lot of money. I'm not one of them.

Telen: The Gaidar government was made up of old and then young specialists who were all more or less the same economically. But that changed quickly.

Some people came up with serious fortunes. Most didn't.

Telen: Did this affect relations?

It would have if I had had complexes. But I don't.

Telen: You didn't go into business out of principle?

I couldn't let myself do that.

Telen: Couldn't?

Even if I earned all my money from my business legally and paid all my taxes, a Gaidar with tens of millions of dollars would have been a reproach to democracy.

Telen: Is it important to you how history views you?

It is important to me how I feel about myself and how my children feel.


Telen: When you headed the government a decade ago, you predicted how things would develop in the country. Have your economic predictions held true?

I didn't make any economic forecasts because I didn't have a basis for any. Prognosis is a sort of model that is based not only on principles, but on facts. If we had had some experience of Russia emerging from 70 years of socialism, then we might have estimated how things would go. But then only short-term problems were clear and we were trying to cope with them.

If you are speaking of my general views, I would say that everything happened more or less as I expected. But everything happened much more slowly than I expected. I incorrectly extrapolated from what we could see then in Poland. I didn't take into account that this history of socialism in Russia was much longer and the distortions much greater and so it took us twice as long to pull out of that as it took the Poles.

Telen: And it wasn't a matter of your own mistakes and miscalculations?

It was a matter of the concrete situation that had evolved by the fall of 1991.

Telen: Why did you leave public politics?

I think I fulfilled my military obligation in public politics. I don't think I was born to be a strong public politician. I have to do those things for which I have clear comparative advantages compared to my colleagues. Which is what I am trying to do. I like what I am doing today.


Telen: Because of the efforts of the authorities, of Berezovsky, and its own activities, the opposition is going steadily downhill. What do you think its chances are?

In the short term, not good. In the long term, normal. Russia has an educated, urbanized population and a per capita GDP of about $10,000. Such societies cannot be isolated from democracy for long.

Telen: How long are we talking? A year? Five? 10? 50?

After Novgorod and Pskov [in the Middle Ages], Russia had no democratic traditions. But did Taiwan? But when Taiwan reached roughly the same level of development that Russia has today, it turned out that its regime -- which was based on the Stalinist model by our advisers, with the same secret-police system and the same willingness to use whatever violence necessary on the population -- collapsed.

Everything will be normal here too. Will it take time? Yes. Will it take a struggle, and maybe victims? God willing, we can do without that. But at a maximum of 15 years from now, Russia will be a democracy. I'm sure of that.

Lyudmila Telen is the editor in chief of the website of RFE/RL's Russian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL