Order of the Day

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MOSCOW: Staging his long-awaited return to the helm of a foundering Russia, Boris Yeltsin proved at least one thing: h e has been paying attention. Addressing both houses of parliament in a nationally televised State of Russia address, Yeltsin provided a long and unsparing litany of Russia's ills. The president covered them all: from unpaid taxes to unpaid wages, from crime and poverty in the streets to corruption in the government, from an expanding NATO and a crumbling military to Chechnya, the tiny republic yearning to wriggle free. But the centerpiece of Russian renewal, Yeltsin insisted, must be filli ng the national coffers--and improving their distribution. To that end, he announced that "taxation reform is my economic task for this year" and made a goal of GNP growth of not less than 2 percent. As if that portion of the speech were for t he Russia people, and perhaps for the anxious West and the IMF, Yeltsin then seemed to turn his attentions to nationalist hawks assembled before him. He reiterated Russia's opposition to the eastward expansion of NATO, which he said was an attempt to "take Russia out of Europe, isolate Russia, for which European nations will pay very dearly." The counter-offensive: to strengthen ties with CIS neighbors such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan and Belarus. A man infamous for his extravagant p romises, Yeltsin wisely made few in a sober and sobering 24-minute address. One, to pay all pensions owed by June 3, actually drew some smiles from Duma members. Other skepticism was not so thinly disguised. Afterward, Communist Party leader Genna dy Zyuganov called the performance "miserable, helpless, buffoonery without any real content behind it. I would like to hear why there is no economic growth. And why pensions, social payments and wages are not being paid." Yeltsin's speech, though, demonstrated a full grasp of the why. The evident difficulty will be in the how: how to restore the rule of law while paring the spongy Russian bureaucracy. On that Yeltsin was eloquently vague: "We must promise what can be fulfilled, an d what is promised will be fulfilled," he said. The answer, Yeltsin said, was order -- always a popular notion in Russia, and yet one that the sprawling nation has decidedly lacked in its halting transition to capitalism.