Showdown in Moscow

November 30, 1992

At a time when much of America is preoccupied wit domestic problems and the forthcoming shift of power in Washington, new, serious questions are being asked about Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin. Is he still in control? For how much longer?

Less than a year after he managed to elbow Mikhail S. Gorbachev out of the Kremlin, Mr. Yeltsin himself is increasingly on the defensive from a newly invigorated coalition of industrialists and technocrats. A showdown is expected tomorrow, when the largely anti-Yeltsin Congress of Peoples' Deputies convenes.

"President Boris Yeltsin no longer presides over the political decision-making process in Russia," writes Alexander Rahr, a leading Western analyst of Russian affairs. "It seems that major political decisions in the Kremlin are being made not by him and his liberal-reformist government but largely by the Civic Union, a coalition of industrialists, social democratically oriented former Communists, and supporters of the idea of creating a new Union on the territory of the former Soviet empire."

Like Mr. Gorbachev before him, Mr. Yeltsin is engaged in a desperate effort to mollify hardline critics and keep them at bay. Meanwhile, the increasingly powerful Civic Union alliance of industrial managers, former Communist Party bureaucrats, dissatisfied elements of the armed forces and Russian nationalists keeps issuing challenges to the president. The coalition wants to stop the country's transition to a free-market economy and to stamp out "foreign" influences in everything from culture to the mass media.

It is unlikely that anything will be settled in Moscow this week. After a brief compromise, the power struggle will resume. In the long run, Russia may see a replay of what already has happened in Lithuania. Fed up with the inability of nationalist reformers in that small Baltic state to sort out such day-to-day problems as food and energy supplies, voters have returned communists to power.

Even though the Russian power struggle is not over yet, the unleashed emotions have already claimed a casualty. Less than a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party that mismanaged it over seven decades, many Russians say democracy was a beautiful dream that was given its chance but failed to work. Those Russians now vocally proclaim their readiness for a more authoritarian -- or "Russian" -- model of government, as long as it works and delivers.

Russia may again be approaching a turning point. This situation requires stronger support for Mr. Yeltsin from Washington. Russia may be a basket case but it still has a nuclear sword. A democratic Russia, however imperfect, clearly is much preferable to a loose cannon bent on domestic revenge and international adventurism.

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