Yeltsin took on power -- and problems Heroic expectations compound burdens News analysis

November 12, 1991|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- When the Russian parliament, meeting in yet another crisis session, refused to go along yesterday with Boris N. Yeltsin's crackdown on a distant breakaway ethnic enclave, it was making one very obvious point: that the rough-hewn Russian president finally has taken from Mikhail S. Gorbachev not only the power to run the country but also the problems that go with it.

Mr. Yeltsin, who almost single-handedly routed the old Communist government in August and assumed vast personal authority as a result, now has both his hands full with problems that defy a happy solution.

His headaches in many ways have come to resemble those that once bedeviled Mr. Gorbachev, except now they are more acute.

The crisis of the moment is in the distant autonomous republic of Chechen-Ingush, a predominantly Muslim area in the northern part of the Caucasus Mountains that has declared independence from Russia.

Mr. Yeltsin declared a state of emergency Saturday and sent troops. Yesterday, the troops withdrew, the parliament in Moscow balked, and Mr. Yeltsin was faced with the choice of backing down completely or picking a fight.

On the political front, Mr. Yeltsin watched over the weekend as his backers in the Democratic Reform Movement, an umbrella group of parties and political interest groups, had a falling out over the issue of the use of force against regions that desire independence.

Fortunately for the reformers, the splinter group that walked out of Sunday's conference appears to be of only minor influence. But unfortunately for Mr. Yeltsin, those were his supporters who walked out.

In the end, the Democratic Reform Movement endorsed Mr. Yeltsin's handling of economic issues, but to have splits and disagreements among those who elected him to the Russian presidency last June can do the Russian president no good.

And winning endorsements for economic policies is one thing; winning over the population is another. Every day the lines grow longer, the shortages more acute, the uneasiness over the future more palpable.

In St. Petersburg, Mayor Anatoly Sobchak assailed Mr. Yeltsin's economic reform plan Sunday, saying he had it all backward. Mr. Yeltsin had talked about freeing prices be

fore the new year, but Mr. Sobchak said it was dangerous even to think of such a move before breaking up the state-run monopolies, which otherwise could set prices wherever they pleased.

Shortly afterward, Mr. Yeltsin's chief economic adviser, Yegor Gaidar, said the government might not free prices so quickly after all.

Russians don't blame the Communists for the current lack of bread and milk, the high price of clothes or the rationing of vodka. They blame the "politicians," chief among whom now is Mr. Yeltsin.

Ethnic unrest, political squabbling and bare shelves: They have become a familiar trinity here.

Broadly, they are the same problems that undid Mr. Gorbachev, as the country fractured during the slow unraveling of communism before the August coup. Mr. Gorbachev's popularity ebbed and ebbed, but, a shrewd politician, he held on to his post, and now hardly anyone even thinks to blame him anymore.

Today the problems are in some ways more dangerous. And Mr. Yeltsin operates under one additional handicap that never burdened Mr. Gorbachev. In August, the fiery Russian president became a hero by defying the junta that had seized power. Now, as Aron Belkin, a prominent psychiatrist here, points out, Russians expect him to act heroically at every turn, in the face of every crisis.

And if Mr. Yeltsin proves himself to be merely mortal, the problems could come crashing down on him.

The Russian Federation is a tempestuous stew of nationalities, and Mr. Yeltsin has made it clear in the past that he intends to resist forcefully any attempt at breaking it up.

By doing so, he also has made it clear that the problems of holding his huge country together are his to contend with, just as similar problems were once Mr. Gorbachev's.

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