Standoff in Moscow

April 11, 1991

Despite the vastness of the Soviet Union, the question remains whether it is big enough to accommodate both Mikhail S. Gorbachev and his arch-rival, Boris N. Yeltsin. No reconciliation seems possible: Mr. Yeltsin is campaigning against the Communist Party, the military and the KGB, which are the cornerstones of Mr. Gorbachev's rapidly waning political power base.

Mr. Yeltsin scored an important victory in persuading the Russian Congress of People's Deputies to grant him sweeping decree powers to deal with the republic's economic and political paralysis. Those powers are to last only until elections for a directly elected president on June 12.

In seeking extraordinary powers, Mr. Yeltsin followed the lead of Mr. Gorbachev, who concentrated central power in his hands last year.

Ironically, all this power-grabbing has failed to enhance Mr. Gorbachev's ability to resolve his country's worsening crisis. The Soviet Union's economic and societal disintegration has now become so threatening that Mr. Gorbachev is begging for even more emergency authority. This time he wants to be able to dismiss local officials who disobey Moscow's orders and he wants a moratorium until the end of the year on all strikes and demonstrations during working hours.

Mr. Gorbachev is engaged in a desperate fight for political survival. His popularity is gone, the country is a mess. The forces seeking his removal are massing on the left and on the right. Meanwhile, Georgia has joined the rebellious Baltic states in declaring its independence from the Soviet Union. And tens of thousands of workers in Byelorussia, once among the most docile of Soviet republics, are now out on the streets demanding Mr. Gorbachev's ouster just like coal miners nationwide, who have been striking for six weeks.

"The only way to make me resign is through the constitution," Mr. Gorbachev recently told a delegation of miners. Yet if the situation continues to deteriorate, the Soviet parliament may have to decide next week whether granting emergency powers to Mr. Gorbachev would only thrust the country into a certain civil war.

If removal becomes an option, the parliament's appointed Communist majority would be unlikely to elect Mr. Yeltsin. They would probably prefer Anatoly Lukyanov, their chairman, who at least would fight to preserve Communist control.

For more than a year now, events in the Soviet Union have eerily mirrored events of 1917. If the country again is in the throes of a revolutionary situation, constitutional juggling by discredited rulers may prove to be too little, too late. Just as it was 73 years ago.

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