POWER STRUGGLE ERODES HOPE FOR RUSSIAN REFORM

To hopeful outsiders, reform in Russia once meant progress from the scorched earth of central planning to the lush promise of market freedom.

To hopeful outsiders, reform in Russia once meant progress from the scorched earth of central planning to the lush promise of market freedom.

The reality of reform so far has turned out to be something quite different.

There has been reform to the extent that Russia no longer submits uniformly to communist orthodoxy. But movement toward anything more constructive has been intermittent at best.

From the Russian oil industry to the national government, progress has given way to a seemingly endless struggle for power.

Russian oil companies, crucial to national revenues, remain mired in questions about the extent of government ownership and control.

And much of what once might have passed for a national agenda has given way to lurches by a bankrupt central government and devolution of practical authority to the provinces.

The struggle has consumed Boris Yeltsin, the physically ailing president. Yeltsin this month fired Prime Minister Sergei Stephasin, who had just 3 months in office, and replaced him with Vladimir Putin, former head of Russian internal security.

It's the fifth change of prime ministers in less than 2 years.

Yeltsin, constitutionally required to leave office next year, said he hoped the new prime minister would become his successor. His move was widely interpreted as a maneuver to keep control over events after his departure from the presidency.

In other words, it was a power move undertaken at the expense of Russian national interest.

Yeltsin's latest shenanigan gives the rest of the world one more reason to doubt that Russian reform promises anything beyond the current muddle. If Russia were self-sustaining, it could ignore such worries from abroad. Having done so little to create a viable economic system out of the wreckage of communism, however, it depends enormously on external financing.

So Russia has no choice; it must worry about what the rest of the world thinks.

And what the rest of the world has growing reason to think is that Russian reform is just an eternal promise, eternally unfulfilled.

Oil companies once eager for access to Russian opportunities are quietly pulling out. International financial assistance is being criticized as wasted money. The national economy, if one really exists, founders.

In Moscow, however, leaders sacrifice consistency and at least the appearance of stability to their preoccupation with power for power's sake.

Until that changes, reform in Russia will amount to little more than ploy with which to trick foreign optimists out of money.

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