The Russian economist and reform politician Yegor Gaidar suddenly passed away on December 16, at the age of 53. The son of an admiral entered Russian history and world politics in the early nineties, as the brief prime minister of the Yeltsin government that was about to get the post Soviet economy back on its feet after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This granted him the admiration of the world but hardly the love of the people. The so called shock therapy, associated with the visiting economist and colleagues Anders Åslund and Jeffrey Sachs, implied a necessary but brutal transition from the waste of the planned economy to market economic principles. However, contrary to the common belief among senior Soviet officials and the aims of Mikhail Gorbachev, it soon turned out that the Soviet economy was so dysfunctional that reform was beyond reach.
The break from the old was crucial to the rescue team. However, the immediate positive effects were scarce. In addition, the liberalization was further restrained by the still communistically dominated political establishment around Yeltsin. Due to the long dictatorship there was an imminent lack of entrepreneurs who could have been able to shoulder a renewal. Instead, Oligarchs and corruption flourished.
Gaidar left the government but not politics. As one of the founders of the west oriented liberal opposition party (SPS) in 1999, he remained true to the reform agenda. However, as Vladimir Putin’s totalitarian grasp of the power grew stronger, less and less room was left for opposition. Following the defeat in the elections of 2003, Gaidar went back to being an economist. As such, he was often welcomed as a guest speaker abroad. I had the fortune of seeing him lecture at the World Economic Forum in Davos and at the Johnson foundation’s Engelsberg conference, though without realizing how great he was.
Nonetheless, in the days following his death, several of his early colleagues bear witness to his importance. At his blog, Gaidars colleague in reforms, Anatoly Chubais, claim Gaidar to be “a great man, as a researcher and as a politician, with few equals in Russian history… It was fortunate for Russia that he saved the country from starvation, civil war and collapse.”
Similar words are used by the judicial activist Lev Ponomarov, who argues that Gaidar’s contribution to the fight for democracy has been underestimated. “It is difficult to find anyone, apart from Yeltsin, who has saved the country under such hardship, yet got so much criticism. The society was largely unfair to him”.
Even Putin himself has given his condolences, calling Gaidar’s death “a great loss to the nation”. This might be due to Gaidar’s lasting belief that Russia, in spite of its limitations, should be a market economy and that there was cause for a solid optimism for the future, although he added that the mix between power and ownership still remained an unsolved issue.
In 2006, Gaidar made headlines around the world when it was announced that he had fallen ill during a visit to Dublin, and that his death was imminent. Media speculated about poisoning which had caused former KGB-agent Litvinenko’s death in London the day before. Be it an improbable coincidence or not, death has finally caught up with Yegor Gajdar.
Text: Mats Johansson, Member of Parliament and author of ”Det nya kalla kriget – vart går Ryssland?”
Translation from Swedish: Evelina Lorentzon