Economic reform in Russia will survive even if Anatoly Chubais, its chief architect, is swept from office by allegations of bribery. But it would likely shift into a lower gear.
Mr. Chubais has supplied the driving energy behind vast undertakings like the privatization of Russia's state-owned industry. His code has seemed to be: Get it done, even if you have to do it in a way that's not exactly by the book. In Russia, after all, the book was being written even as Chubais, during President Yeltsin's first term, revved up his economic reforms.
That kind of brash determination to move to private ownership and market dynamics made Chubais the whipping boy of the Communist opposition to Mr. Yeltsin. It has also made him highly unpopular with average Russians disgusted by the rush of new monied elites to buy up oil operations or media empires once held, in theory anyway, by the public. Now he's engulfed by scandal.
Chubais and three other reformist aides to Yeltsin admit to taking large advances, $90,000 each, for co-authoring a proposed book on privatization. The would-be publisher is owned by a large private banking group, Uneximbank, that recently bought from the government a controlling interest in a coveted telecommunications business. Critics smell graft.
Chubais's colleagues have already been sacked by Yeltsin, and the outcry for the top man's head is mounting - particularly in the Duma, Russia's parliament, where the Communists have the largest block of votes. They threaten to hold Yeltsin's 1998 budget hostage until Chubais is booted out.
Yeltsin himself was reportedly appalled by the book deal, but he knows Chubais is respected by foreign investors, whose confidence in Russia is shaky. Other reformers could be brought in to continue the work of rousing Russia's economy. But they may not have Chubais's fervor. On the other hand, his effectiveness is increasingly constricted by controversy.
Public, freewheeling politics, it should be remembered, are still recent arrivals in Moscow. A legislature at loggerheads with a president? A reformer caught in a web of scandal? Private financial interests trying to influence government? These aren't the most appealing sides of Russia's transition from decades of deadening Stalinism. But they are sure signs of democracy grittily at work.
Observers in the West have to appreciate Russia's new pluralism, even as they root for the extension of Chubais's free-market reforms.