Top generals support Yeltsin in power struggle Army encourages tougher stand

March 04, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- President Boris N. Yeltsin met with Russia's top generals yesterday at the Kremlin, and they demanded -- as if on cue -- that he use a firm hand to resolve his power struggle with the parliament.

It was a demand that Mr. Yeltsin, bogged down in political infighting that is exasperating an already cynical population, could only have been too happy to receive.

The military has stayed out of Russian politics up to now. When Mr. Yeltsin has talked tough about asserting power over the recalcitrant parliament, as he did Tuesday, skeptics have asked if the army would stand for it.

Yesterday the army was telling him to get tougher. Izvestia, a newspaper normally sympathetic to the president, was on the streets a very short time later, spreading the news.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Yeltsin had warned that Russia's political deadlock had brought the country to the brink of disintegration -- that it could break apart into dozens of feudal states. He predicted a "1,000-year" war that might result.

Yesterday's events underscored how seriously Mr. Yeltsin views his looming battle with the legislature. The fight has been brewing since December, when the Congress of People's Deputies last met, and an agreement to hold a referendum was hammered out in an atmosphere of mutual hostility and distrust.

The referendum -- asking Russians to choose a parliamentary or presidential system -- is supposed to be held in April, but it has now become likely that an emergency meeting of the Congress will take place in March.

The Congress might try to cancel the referendum. Or, as Mr. Yeltsin has warned, it might try to do just about anything else.

Both sides suspect betrayal. Tuesday, Mr. Yeltsin virtually declared that the Congress, dominated by Communist holdovers, was all but illegitimate. He said he was prepared to take whatever steps might be necessary to save his reforms.

The suspicions and tensions here are such that after Mr. Yeltsin met with his generals, Russia's defense minister, Pavel Grachev, felt compelled to tell a news conference that they had not gathered to plan a coup.

Today the standing legislature, the Supreme Soviet, is scheduled to debate the agenda for the forthcoming session of the broader and more powerful Congress. The earliest the Congress is likely to meet is next Wednesday, although there were suggestions yesterday that the session could come a week or so later.

Mr. Yeltsin clearly fears a Congress out of control -- voting itself power and refusing to disband. He has tried to work out deals with the speaker, Ruslan Khasbulatov, but Mr. Khasbulatov has a history of betraying one side and then the other. A deal was not reached in February, and in any case Mr. Khasbulatov's ability to control the Congress is an open question.

At one time Mr. Yeltsin could have counted on strong public support in his struggles with the legislature, but more recently a pox-on-both-your-houses mood has surfaced in Russia.

Corruption and inflation are racing neck-and-neck, and economic reform so far seems to be showing few benefits for all the pain it has caused. More and more Russians say they long for a strong hand -- a recent poll showed Peter the Great far and away the most popular leader in Russian or Soviet history.

Mr. Yeltsin, never a stickler for democratic forms, now seems to be trying to offer himself as the man to wield that strong hand.

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