Time Out in Moscow

April 17, 1992

Last summer, hard-line communists and Russian chauvinists fumbled in a coup attempt. This week, this same coalition proved too timid and disorganized to clip the wings of President Boris N. Yeltsin, making lots of noise but then surrendering without a fight. The reform movement won a respite of sorts -- until this summer.

The summer will be crucial. Money from the recently announced $24 billion Western aid package should be flowing by then, enabling the Russian government to curtail some of the rampant inflation and chaos in the economy. More reform programs also should be in place. All this could improve the food situation and lift sagging confidence. If that does not happen, the August-September period could propel Russia into a far more serious political crisis than the one just barely avoided.

Russia's basic political problems were not resolved this week. The crux of the dilemma is that about the only surviving communist-era political institution in Moscow is the Congress of People's Deputies. After the failed coup attempt, reformists ousted communist hard-liners from many other key positions in life. But discredited hard-liners still control the legislative body -- because Mikhail S. Gorbachev, in a futile effort to save socialism, packed the congress with appointed party loyalists.

As long as this anomaly continues, the Congress of People's Deputies is certain to be a millstone around the neck of Mr. Yeltsin and his reform allies. The easy way out would be to dismantle the legislature and hold new elections. But this is a gamble neither Mr. Yeltsin nor his reformers want to risk. In view of Russia's precarious political situation, reformers might win. Then, again, they might be rooted out.

The only way the Yeltsin forces can triumph in the long run is to use their temporary success to the fullest advantage and press on with speedy reforms. The history of Mr. Gorbachev's presidency showed that whenever he slowed down and hesitated, hard-line conservatives were able to mount a renewed assault.

The Gorbachev precedent also showed what a dangerous time the August-September period of long summer vacations can be. Whenever Mr. Gorbachev disappeared from public view, rumors of plots and intrigues began. Since many of his closest advisers usually also were away, a perceived political vacuum quickly developed. If Mr. Yeltsin is smart, he would study and learn from the record of his hapless predecessor.

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