Yeltsin Critic: Chechnya's `Disastrous' Fallout Once a Yeltsin Confidante, Yegor Gaidar Warns the War in Chechnya Could Harm Russia's Economy and Lead to a Coup

Article excerpt

FORMER Russian acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, known as the "reform czar" for his Western-style economic policies, was once one of President Boris Yeltsin's closest allies. But when the Russian leader dispatched troops to Chechnya on Dec. 11, Mr. Gaidar emerged as one of his most outspoken critics.

Gaidar now heads Russia's Choice, the largest single faction in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament. But because many Russians associate Gaidar's market policies with the economic hardships they encountered following the Soviet collapse, he has lost some public support.

He talked Jan. 9 to the Monitor about possible consequences of military action in Chechnya, and how they could affect Russia's future. Excerpts follow.

Is a military coup possible?

That's guesswork. War in young, unstable democracies decreases the power of civil institutions and increases the power of military institutions. So, the chances for the coup are much higher now than they were two months ago.

Is the military split?

The military is divided. There are reasonable men in the Army who hate what is happening, and there are a lot of dangerous, stupid fools in the Army. It's difficult to figure out who is in control. A coup could be more or less easy in this type of political instability, when the support of civil institutions is so low. But you would not need the Army to make a coup. You would need just one battalion.

The West says it so far has no contingency plans if Yeltsin falls. Who could be a realistic alternative to Yeltsin?

Let us create a big democratic coalition, including one against the war. Let us try to get public support and win the parliamentary elections. At that time it will be much easier for us to discuss who should be the presidential candidate.

Ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky has supported Yeltsin throughout the conflict. Could he become the next Russian president?

I will not exclude it, but I think it's rather improbable. He's a bit too obvious. He made many promises before the last elections, but fulfilled only a small number of them, if any. So I think it will be very difficult for him to run an efficient campaign, but I will not write him off.

Yeltsin thought he could subdue Chechnya in just a few days. How could he make such a grave political miscalculation?

It would be much better, of course, to ask Mr. President. There were times when I had perfect knowledge of what the president was thinking. But now I would be one of the thousands of political scientists looking through the window and trying to guess what Yeltsin is really thinking.

When was the last time you had contact with Yeltsin?

We met and discussed certain issues in early November. Since then I have telephoned him, and he knows that I would like to meet him. I have written him a few letters, some of them personal. But I have received no answer.

Has Yeltsin changed, or is he just finally showing his true colors?

For me, the Yeltsin who was trying to destroy Communist power, who was trying to build Russian democracy and fight for freedom of speech, for free and fair elections, trying to open the path of the market economy, was the Yeltsin promoting a policy I could support. …