Is Boris N. Yeltsin afflicted with Gorbachev's Disease? Is the Great Russian Republic about to unravel in an eerie replay of the Soviet Union's disintegration? Is the vast Eurasian land mass from the Polish border to the Pacific destined to be the scene of unending ethnic struggle and nationalist rivalry, with republics turning against the center and they in turn riven by divisions within their borders? It is a frightening prospect that gives special weight to NATO's plea for some assurance of Moscow's control over its huge nuclear arsenal.
The current drama in Chechen-Ingush, an autonomous republic in southern Russia, has suddenly revealed startling weakness in the position of Mr. Yeltsin. The popularly elected Russian president was a hero in thwarting the August military coup against Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, his longtime political rival. But after first displaying his contempt for the old Soviet party apparatus and then acquiring authoritarian presidential powers, Mr. Yeltsin stumbled badly over the past five days in trying to thwart independence moves in Chechen-Ingush, a Muslim region captured long ago by the czars.
Not only did rebellious crowds defy troops dispatched by Mr. Yeltsin; the Russian parliament itself repudiated its supposedly all-powerful president by insisting overwhelmingly on political negotiations rather than armed suppression. Democratic Mr. Yeltsin is not; impulsive he is. It could be that warnings of terrorist attacks in Moscow subways and nuclear power plants around the capital from Gen. Djhokar Dudayev, who was sworn in Saturday as "president" of Chechen-Ingush, sobered Mr. Yeltsin's allies.