Russia Parliament Head Pushes Perestroika
The third most important man in Russia, Ivan Rybkin is a moderate who proposes to return the country to a path of `social democratic' reform and political stability. PROFILE
WHILE Boris Yeltsin's tanks were pounding the White House, Russia's parliament building, Ivan Rybkin was inside, huddled in an inner chamber with a couple hundred fellow deputies.
``The building was shaking all over, it was terrible,'' he said.
Undeterred by this experience, Mr. Rybkin plunged into the election of a new parliament in December as a leader of the Agrarian Party. He landed in the skyscraper that now houses the State Duma, the lower and more powerful house of the new Russian legislature.
With backing from his party and its allies in the Russian Communist Party, which together form the largest bloc in the Duma, Rybkin was elected last month as the legislature's chairman. In constitutional as well as political terms, the agricultural specialist and reformist communist is now the third most important man in Russia, after President Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.
The lure of such power corroded former Parliament Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, whose arrogance grew apace with his unwillingness to compromise, leading finally to the bloody events of last October. But in a two-and-half hour, late-night talk in his 18th floor office, formerly occupied by the mayor of Moscow, Rybkin lived up to his reputation as a man of moderation and unassuming civility.
In his history and his politics, Rybkin most resembles Mikhail Gorbachev. A half-generation younger than Mr. Gorbachev, he, too, made his career in the agricultural regions of southern Russia as a reformist in the ranks of the Soviet Communist Party. The Volgograd resident was and remains an ardent supporter of Gorbachev's perestroika, an advocate of a mix of free market socialism.
The parliament leader makes no secret of his opposition to the radical, free-market policies pursued by former Vice Premier Yegor Gaidar and ex-Finance Minister Boris Fyodorov, who resigned after the elections.
Russia was never prepared for the Polish ``shock therapy'' variant of reforms, Rybkin believes. ``We don't have the unity in society that Poland had at the start of reforms, where there was the trade union Solidarity and the powerful Catholic Church.''
Gradual reform led by the Communist Party, as in China, was the preferred path. ``But by the time reform had started, the party in Russia had lost the necessary authority,'' Rybkin argues. Gorbachev failed to oust the extremes in the party, leading to the August 1991 attempted coup, he says. ``Some say those events accelerated reforms, but actually they braked them.''
Now, two-and-a-half years of political turmoil later, Rybkin proposes to return to ``social democratic'' reform and political stability. Despite the presence in the Duma of powerful blocs of Communists and extreme Russian nationalists, led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, he dismisses predictions that past confrontations will be repeated. ``What happened in October is our common, grave defeat,'' Rybkin says. ``This is an immunization shot for all of us against all those [political] illnesses.''
RYBKIN has quickly established a good working relationship with President Yeltsin and his government. ``My detailed conversations with the president show he is not seeking confrontation, but rather mutual grounds and a calm life for the country.... I think the president has definitely learned a lot, has understood a lot, as have many of those deputies who were in the former parliament.''
Such talk, backed by Rybkin's efforts to move the Duma from heated rhetoric to hard work, has earned him praise from most parliament factions. Only some hard-line Communists and nationalists assail Rybkin, accusing him of being conciliatory to Yeltsin.
Behind the conciliation, however, there is a clear political aim - to consolidate the post-election shift of the government's economic reform policies toward a more gradualist, conservative course. Rybkin seeks to form a parliamentary majority of ``three-quarters of the deputies'' behind a ``government of national accord'' that ``would be able to drag the country out of any bog.'' Only ``extremists'' on the left and right will oppose this, he says.
Based on his talks with Yeltsin, Rybkin expects a move in this direction when the president delivers his first major post-election policy address to a joint parliament session Feb. 24. The Duma committee on economic policy is working on a reform program that is ``practically identical'' with the views of Premier Chernomyrdin, he says.
AT length, accompanied by jottings and diagrams and peppered by examples from his agricultural experience, Rybkin outlines his economic priorities. ``The first is to restore the manageability of the economy. I do not mean administrative measures, but economic measures.''
In practice, Rybkin is prepared to continue state subsidies to key parts of the economy, such as his favored agriculture, arguing that all countries, from Japan to the United States, do the same. But he acknowledges that credits should be selective, with the parliament exercising control over the huge, self-perpetuating bureaucracy. ``If this doesn't happen, a bureaucrat - whether an Ivanov, Petrov, or Sidorov - will still remain a Czar in this system,'' Rybkin says.
Rybkin questions the ``toughness'' of former Finance Minister Fyodorov's efforts to restrict state subsidies. ``He managed to kick out only those who were weak and could not stand up for themselves,'' like farmers who have yet to be paid for grain purchases made last summer by the government, Rybkin charges. ``Is that any way to combat inflation?''
Yet he insists the Duma will not simply open the money taps, as reformers now fear will happen. ``We stand for a tough, anti-inflationary budget.... We should try to reach an inflation rate not higher than 7-8 percent a month,'' compared to the present 20-plus level.
Rybkin wants major changes in Russia's privatization program, a showcase for the reformers. ``Privatization has to go on, but I would call it denationalization,'' he says. Russia must find a balance between state and private sectors that fit its own needs, ``maybe 50/50 to begin with.''