'No Work Is Getting Done'

Maybe Boris Yeltsin should have known better than to take a vacation-at a Black Sea resort, no less. When he left on Sept. 23 for two weeks of rest ordered by his doctor, the Russian president basked in the fading, but still warm, afterglow of victory over the coup makers. As he settled down to write his memoirs of the three grim but glorious days in August, even his own staff had a hard time reaching him at his seaside dacha; the Russian vice president, Aleksandr Rutskoi, complained that he often couldn't get through to his boss on the phone. But when Yeltsin's plane touched down in Moscow last Thursday night, reality must have hit fast. Two ministers had quit in his absence, other aides were bickering among themselves and the Russian parliament had balked at approving the interrepublican economic agreement that Yeltsin himself had called essential. Welcome back, Boris.

For a few weeks after the coup, the Soviet people floated on a hopeful high. But in recent weeks the momentum was lost as old woes came rushing back. Ethnic unrest resurged in places like Georgia. The democratic movement splintered into squabbling fractions, each intent on preventing the other from accomplishing anything. Most important, economic reform went adrift. "People's patience is wearing thin," Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev warned 10 republican leaders at a State Council meeting last week.

While the polity wobbled, the economy sank like a stone. Only 54 million metric tons of grain have been stored for the winter, the lowest level in 50 years. Sixteen regions of Russia were already rationing bread and Vice President Rutskoi suggested "capital punishment" for those responsible for the poor economic performance. Grigory Yavlinsky, a member of the central government's four-man economic team, told the Russian parliament that overall production had fallen 17.5 percent and warned that an additional 3 percent drop would lead to "complete paralysis." Key reforms were not being addressed. "Until you've got a real currency, you haven't got a real union," said Steve Moody, an American investment adviser in Moscow. "And until you've got private property, you haven't got a viable economy."

Top officials responsible for reforming the economy have not been able to get down to work. One reason is that they have been distracted by visits from foreign delegations-nearly 50 American groups alone in the past two months, according to a count by the U.S. Embassy. One day last week, Gorbachev spent three and a half hours with American pension-fund managers and a delegation of Italian businessmen. "Every time I put in a call to anyone these days, they can't talk because they're busy with a foreign delegation," complains Moscow Mayor Gavriil Popov. "I think we need to spend more time solving our problems by ourselves."

Solutions aren't coming easily. Earlier this month, 12 republics tentatively agreed to maintain a central banking system, a common defense policy, free interrepublican trade and a coordinated transition to a market system. Within days the agreement began to fall apart. There were second thoughts from the Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, and in Yeltsin's absence even Russia failed to ratify the deal. Yevgeny Saburov, Russia's economics minister and delegate to the negotiations, resigned in disgust. "The Russian Council of Ministers is completely paralyzed, and no work at all is getting done," he complained. The environment minister also resigned in frustration. After returning from vacation, Yeltsin affirmed that Russia would join the economic community after all, with some modifications. But the damage to his shaky government was done.

The democratic forces are now sorely split. One of their heroes, Mayor Popov, is accused by some former allies of undermining the city council. He replies that the city needs a strong executive. Former foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who warned late last year that the country was threatened by dictatorship, sounded a similar alarm last week. This time, he said, the threat comes "from the deteriorating economic situation and declining production." The weekly Moscow News warned of a "creeping coup," in which shortages of consumer goods would lead to riots this winter and spring. Historian Aleksei Kiva said recently: "If we want a lumpen-populist, pro-fascist dictatorship to take over power, then we should continue doing what the democrats have been doing-arguing, quarreling and setting the legislative and the executive at loggerheads."

The recent behavior of the Russian government leaves little cause for hope. Since the coup, Russia's parliament has not passed a single new law. "We are unprepared to take on the full burden of responsibility in the now world," Yeltsin aide Sergei Stankevich told a Moscow newspaper. Yeltsin's own personal popularity can still see him through some rough spots. But Russian legislator Viktor Vainshtein warned last week: "If they don't grab hold of the right economic levers, even faith in Yeltsin will fall." The Russian president's authority remains one of the few stabilizing factors on the Soviet political scene. If he loses it, the country loses, too.