#2 - 7138
April 9-15, 2003
Gaidar: Kamikaze Still Alive
Yegor Gaidar headed the first Russian government, dubbed kamikaze cabinet, which proved a misnomer. All its members are still alive and doing quite well
By Lyudmila Telen
Yegor Gaidar has one thing in common with Vladimir Putin: Both were hand-picked for a key political role in Russia by Boris Yeltsin. Except that in 1991, Yeltsin believed that the country needed an economist, proponent of market economy, and liberal with firm political convictions, while in 2000, he thought that it needed a Security Service colonel and statist without apparent political persuasions.
What do you think had changed - Yeltsin or Russia?
Let others judge whether the president was right in 1991. But in 1999, he was perfectly right in choosing his successor. I have to admit this as someone who was categorically against that choice.
Did you try to dissuade him?
I did, because I thought that Yeltsin was making a political mistake. Sergei Stepashin, who had just been appointed prime minister, was, in my opinion, doing a fairly good job and was well positioned to run against the people who I was convinced were extremely dangerous for the future of Russia.
Anyone from the Primakov-Luzhkov tandem. Why replace a successful prime minister in such a complex situation, and for unknown reasons? I thought that this decision would show that the ruling authorities were in a panic, and sway the wavering part of the political elite to the winners' side.
That is, Primakov and Luzhkov?
Yes, that was how it looked at the time.
Yeltsin would not listen. And he happened to do the right thing, didn't he?
Later on I talked to him about it and told him that I had been wrong.
But why Putin, of all people? Apart from Stepashin, there were Nemtsov, Yavlinsky, Nikolai Fedorov - there was no shortage of more prominent political figures than Putin.
Today it is pointless to speculate. Had Yeltsin chosen Nikolai Fedorov, we would have been guessing as to why it was him. What is more important is that at the time the overwhelming majority of the political elite did not believe in Yeltsin's ability to hand over power to anyone. It was assumed that the game was up and he was out. And the fact that Yeltsin managed to turn the situation around, compelling his choice to be reckoned with, was extremely significant.
In 1991, everyone knew that Gaidar's appointment was Yeltsin's personal choice. In the case of Putin, however, there were some doubts.
This is for Boris Nikolaevich to comment on. My theory is that it was the president's personal choice.
Is it clear now what dictated it?
Yes. Society was tired of upheavals; it needed a respite.
Do "upheavals" refer to the reforms that you initiated?
Among other things. At the close of the century Russia went through a second major revolution. There was no bloodshed, but it was still a real revolution with everything that that entails. The Russian intelligentsia has for some reason always taken a romantic view of revolutions.
What about you?
Not I. To me, a revolution is trouble.
This, given that you were one of its central characters?
I know. But this does not mean I liked it. It was a severe trial for me. I knew the logic of revolution, and I realized that any government in that situation was doomed to be weak.
Isn't this an attempt to justify a failure?
A revolutionary government is weak not because its leaders are weak. Was Cromwell a weak politician? Yet he was unable to raise funds to pay his army. Robespierre, Lenin or Yeltsin were no less strong, but their governments couldn't collect taxes or pay wages.
What is the main reason for this?
There is no tradition behind revolutionary governments. They cannot run a country as it was run 10 years or even one year before them. In the early 1990s, we had to govern like no one had governed before us. And everyone had a right to ask: "What the hell are you doing in this office? Why are you giving such orders?"
In the fall of 1992, Yeltsin said: "I won't give up on Gaidar." Weeks later, under pressure from the Congress of People's Deputies, he accepted his resignation, and proposed Chernomyrdin as a replacement.
Are you not romanticizing Yeltsin?
Ours has been a long relationship. I supported him, lambasted him, and then supported him again. I am sure that in a decade his role in Russian history will be seen as much greater.
Nonetheless, in 1996, you urged him not to run for the presidency again. Was it a moment of disappointment?
I did not think that Yeltsin would be a bad president.
I was convinced that he would lose. I had plenty of argument in favor of that - from sociological surveys to the experience of Eastern Europe. From a rational point of view, that seemed obvious.
Not to all, however. Chubais for one believed that Yeltsin should run.
I think that Chubais was also skeptical of Boris Nikolaevich's chances. It was simply that I thought the problem was insoluble and that no attempt should be made to solve it. But he believed that it could be solved, and incidentally, he solved it.
That was when people started to talk about Yeltsin's inner circle deciding everything for him.
Without Yeltsin neither Chubais nor the oligarchs who rallied round Chubais could have done anything.
Who did you see in Yeltsin's place?
The vulnerability of my position was that, among other things, I could not propose an alternative candidate. Yet, right until late February I was trying to find one and did not believe in Yeltsin's reelection.
Yeltsin responded to your appeal with a letter. At the time you refused to comment on it, saying that it was personal.
There was nothing out of the ordinary in that letter. He presented his case in favor of running for another term, and gave reasons why he did not think it possible not to run. I still have the letter.
He forgave you?
We are still on good terms.
Did Yeltsin step down under the pressure of circumstances or was it his conscious choice?
Society was bound to get tired of the revolution, and it did. A new power setup was needed that could enforce order. Yeltsin saw that in 1999.
And came to the conclusion that Putin was the man to do it.
He felt that Putin was ready to demonstrate his will and ensure continuity and stability of power.
He felt? You didn't use the word accidentally?
Yeltsin always had a gut feeling of Russian politics - not rational but intuitive. It is a special instinct that does not fit into any political technology.
Simply an instinct for self-preservation perhaps?
It is a political instinct. I often disagreed with him, but in the end it always turned out that, contrary to all logic, he had been right.
After Gaidar, the whole team was going to resign en masse. But he asked them to stay on. And so they did. Some, for a very short time though.
You said you had been selecting your team - I quote - "not only for a common understanding of the logic of macroeconomic reform" but also for considerations of personal integrity. Not all of them seem to have lived up to your expectations.
No, but many did. I had delusions, so I made mistakes.
What do you mean?
It was assumed that someone who is intelligent, well educated, and talented, is also honest. Incidentally, this is indeed so in the majority of cases. But not always.
There were people that you had to break with for this reason?
In your team?
Was that painful to you?
Extremely so. But look, there were about three dozen of those who were shaping Russia's economic policy in the early 1990s, and I'll gladly shake hands with most of them today.
But there were also others, involved in high-profile corruption scandals.
If we take 50 major scandals of this kind and look at those involved in them, there will be very few from our team - even in the broad sense of the word.
Try explaining this to the public.
Why should I? We began the reform, thus assuming the entire responsibility. After this, any theft by any rogue, say, the head of the fishing industry, will be associated with the anti-people's course pursued by Gaidar and Chubais.
Are you hurt by the talk to the effect that Gaidar and his team have robbed Russia?
I am not. By the time I headed up the cabinet, I knew for sure that Russia had been robbed before me. Had the USSR Central Bank's reserves at the time been $52 billion, as the RF Central Bank reserves now are, the Communists would never have ceded power. They did only because the reserves were nil. They did not know how to pay debts or how to feed the people. I am firmly convinced that we did the right thing. I can understand the logic of my political opponents who want to blame me for everything, but I cannot get upset over this.
Gaidar was 35 when he reached the pinnacle of his political career in Russia, and 36 when he stepped down. He has since occupied a special niche. As leader of the Russia's Choice electoral bloc and later as co-chair of the Union of Right Forces, he is the only party leader who can under no circumstances count on the presidency - or the premier's office.
In 1991, you said you were ready at any moment to quit politics and return to the academia. Is the moment not come yet? I have already done so, up to a point.
But you haven't broken with politics. Is it like a narcotic?
Merely an important instrument to flesh out something that our institute is working on. The fact that I am a ranking member of the Duma Budget Committee enhances the effectiveness of our institute's performance. This is why, after much hesitation, I agreed to become a Duma deputy, in 1999.
But in 1991 you hoped that you would never have to indulge in politicking. Yet it seems that you had to.
Not really. I engaged in public politics when I had to, and quit it when I could.
I don't like it. I am ready to support my political friends and ideological soul mates, but I do not consider this my life's calling.
In 1993, Yegor Gaidar led Russia's Choice to victory in parliamentary elections with 15.8% of the vote: The liberals have never done so well in new Russia before or since. In 1999, teaming up with several political movements, they garnered a mere 8.6% of the vote. In the 2003 election, they are not expected to score more than 5%.
The Union of Right Forces is a party of big capital?
Yes, today this is true. Although I would very much like to hope that the situation will change.
Thus far only big capital understands its long-term political interest. Our task is to involve in the political process all those who traditionally vote for right-of-center parties. These are professionals and people in the small and medium-sized business. We will get them on our side eventually: It is simply that this category of the electorate needs more time to understand where their interests lie.
You don't have any problem in dealing with domestic oligarchs? Aren't they rather difficult customers?
Boris Nemtsov has built a sound relationship with big capital. Say, one of our principles is that we never get involved in their turf wars and never lobby for special interests.
What use are you to them then?
We uphold principles that are useful for Russia and therefore for Russian business as a whole. Thus, what we have done on tax reform has increased the capitalization of Russian oil companies by several billion dollars. Fortunately, their leadership understands this very well.
How do you feel about wealth?
I know that wealth per se does not buy you happiness. I have an exciting, challenging job that I would never trade in for a fortune. There are people who think that money is of paramount importance. Some of them have made a fortune in a legal way. With me, money is not the main thing.
The Gaidar government was comprised of former senior and even junior research associates with more or less the same financial status. Before long the situation had changed. Some made big money, but the majority did not.
Does this affect personal relationships?
It would if I had hang-ups. I have none.
Was it a matter of principle that you did not go into business?
I couldn't afford it.
Even if I had earned all my money from business activity in a perfectly legal way and paid all taxes on it, Gaidar, who has made dozens of millions, would always be a black spot on democracy. Was it important for you how you would go down in history?
It was important how I would feel and how my children would feel.
It is generally believed that there are two wings within the Union of Right Forces. One is pro-Putin: Chubais and yourself. The other is in opposition: Nemtsov and Khakamada.
The Union of Right Forces is a democratic party, and we have internal debates on matters of principle. This includes the attitude to President Putin. Each of us has a specific position. Also, allowances should be made for temperament. But when you get down to it, we are unanimous. When Putin's position corresponds to our programmatic guidelines, we support it. When it does not, we don't.
The choice that Boris Yeltsin made in 1999 (unlike his 1991 choice) was widely acclaimed in Russia. This time around the country had an opportunity to do so formally, in elections. In 2000, Vladimir Putin won an outright victory in the first round and has since been adding percentage points to his approval rating. Whatever he does. Whatever he omits to do.
How is your personal relationship with President Putin shaping up?
We met in 1991. Our relationship has naturally evolved depending on our official status.
To what extent do you think Putin is beholden to the interests that brought him to power?
I do not think that he is.
You have any evidence to the contrary?
I do not believe that the political process in Russia can be constructed in this way. In this country, people who are owed the most are forgiven the least.
You believe that intuition prompted Yeltsin not to dictate terms to his successor?
This I don't know. What I do know is that a person who did you a favor, as a rule, evokes mixed feelings. There are exceptions, but they are not universal.
Is your relation to Yeltsin an exception? After all, he showed you much favor, politically speaking.
Had the situation in which Russia found herself in November 1991 been better, I would have said yes. But it was very risky. So I will say: No, I do not think that Yeltsin did me a favor. Although I am grateful to him for tapping me and my team and helping us avert a catastrophe in the country. This is important for me because Russia is my country. Although the word "grateful" does not seem very appropriate here.
How far does the rationale behind your reform correspond to what Putin is doing now?
It does in some ways and it doesn't in others. I am glad that he is forging a coherent foreign policy line. Few in 1999 could expect that it would be so. He has formed a fairly successful economic team that has done a pretty good job. He has certain features related to his earlier service. Sometimes this leads to erroneous decisions.
Could you give an example?
From the national anthem to the migration policy to the mass media. It seems to me that while he has the good intention of putting the country back together, he underestimates the risk of bureaucratization. Enforcement of law and order could turn - is already turning - into the omnipotence of the bureaucrat that is not counterbalanced by either civil society or federalism or freedom of expression. Capitalism without democracy in Russia is a real threat.
If you were to decide today whether to back Putin as a presidential candidate, how would you rate his overall performance - positive or negative?
I do not have to decide on this now. Putin has done a lot that is useful. I would like him to do lots more of the useful things and less of the risky ones. Yet I will base my decision not on my perception of an ideal world but on an appraisal of possible options. If there is a candidate who can make fewer mistakes and do more good, I will support him.
Is the Union of Right Forces in a position to field its own candidate?
We will decide on this in January 2004.
Are you an influential politician with respect to Putin?
I have some influence.
Do you often meet with him?
And with President Yeltsin?
Of course. Recently my wife and I visited him at home, which was a great pleasure.
Is he optimistic over what his successor is doing?
He takes a critical view of the present situation. He is more critical than I am.