Besieged Yeltsin uses old-time weapon, bans newly formed opposition group

October 28, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Russia's President Boris N. Yeltsin, under increasing attack from conservatives who want to force him out of office, fought back yesterday in the old way.

Mr. Yeltsin outlawed the "National Salvation Front," an opposition group which was formed only Saturday on a call for the president's impeachment.

"The front calls for the overthrow of the lawful authorities, destabilizes the society and sets people against each other," Mr. Yeltsin explained, according to reports from the Itar-Tass news agency.

Mr. Yeltsin did not ban the extreme left- and right-wing groups that joined to form the front, only the front itself.

Obviously fearing that his action would be seen as a throwback to dictatorship, he instructed Russian diplomats to reassure the rest of the world.

"This is a terrible threat," the president said, "but the West is unaware of it."

Western diplomats said yesterday that Mr. Yeltsin was overreacting, that the National Front was made up of ultranationalists, anti-Semites, old-style Communists and other fringe groups who could not hope to command wide support. They also pointed out that no serious alternative to Mr. Yeltsin has appeared.

But Mr. Yeltsin, a consummate politician, apparently decided it was time to look tough in the face of a series of challenges to his leadership and the painful economic reforms he has compelled Russians to endure.

Only last week, Parliament voted to convene a session of the highest legislature, the Congress of People's Deputies, in December. Mr. Yeltsin had asked for a postponement until March, when his government would have had more time for progress on reforms and would have been less vulnerable to conservative attack.

But the Parliament was unswayed, and set the stage for a potentially crucial showdown in five weeks' time.

That defeat has left Mr. Yeltsin clearly on the defensive, unable to get his government moving forward again as the political atmosphere in Moscow has grown more and more tempestuous. Bizarre, too.

Last week the speaker of the parliament, Ruslan Khasbulatov, was accused of turning the legislative security guards into a private police force when one of them was killed in a shoot-out with regular Moscow police.

Then Mr. Khasbulatov himself declared that he expected to die a violent death.

The next day he was led out of parliament. Witnesses said he was either drunk or under the influence of narcotics. Aides said he had high blood pressure.

This week Mr. Khasbulatov, a former Yeltsin ally who engineered the president's defeat over the timing of the next congress, is back.

Yesterday he sent his armed guards over to the office of the newspaper Izvestia, trying to reassert ownership over what was once a parliamentary house organ. Mr. Yeltsin has steadfastly asserted that Izvestia is now an independent newspaper.

The guards apparently milled around outside the newspaper office without taking any action -- but sending tremors throughout Moscow.

Yesterday Mr. Yeltsin said the political situation in Russia was grave but the economic situation was improving. The ruble thereupon swooped downward another 14 percent, ending the day at 393 to the dollar.

An overlay to all the political goings-on has been Mr. Yeltsin's feud with Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last Soviet president. When Mr. Gorbachev was outspokenly critical of Mr. Yeltsin, the Russian president took away the buildings of the Gorbachev Foundation. When Mr. Gorbachev refused to testify before the Constitutional Court investigating the past role of the Communist Party, Mr. Yeltsin took away his permission to travel overseas.

On Monday Mr. Gorbachev said Mr. Yeltsin should resign. Yesterday, the talkative former Communist Party leader toned himself down somewhat.

He told a press conference that Mr. Yeltsin should find ways to work with moderate members of the opposition as the only way of making progress, and he warned that an emergency powers decree would bring people to the streets.

"He should not be trying to outmaneuver the parliament, because life remains life," Mr. Gorbachev said. "We need a new policy that provides oxygen to the reforms. If he's only concerned with outwitting the opposition, that will just fuel the arguments of those who want to turn back to the past."

Mr. Yeltsin's banning of the National Front may well be seen by many here, though, as the exercise of a strong hand rather than the fiat of a dictator.

In the last few days, a large group of democratic People's Deputies and intellectuals signed an appeal urging him to take strong action against the National Front and its "creeping coup."

"The president's and government's economic course is being stiffly counteracted by opposition conservative and reactionary forces," the group wrote. "The resistance to the reform is the lTC more vehement the closer the final collapse [comes] of the economic base of totalitarianism, socialist egalitarianism and communist bureaucracy."

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