Millions await Yeltsin's thunderbolt it's been nothing but soap opera so far

March 19, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- At a key moment during last week's bashing of Boris N. Yeltsin by the Congress of People's Deputies, there was a sudden rush toward the few scattered television sets. The president, they said, was about to make an appeal to the people.

He was going to go over the heads of these entrenched, hostile, powerful legislators. This could be the moment of truth.

The sets were found, tuned in. And soap operas filled the screen. Drama and passion of a decidedly non-political flavor poured out into the Great Kremlin Palace.

Powerful politicians who held the fate of the country in their hands watched uneasily. Finally, someone called the television headquarters. Appeal? Not today.

And so, every day since, millions of Russians have watched their soap operas, and the great thunderbolt from Mr. Yeltsin hasn't appeared.

He did make an appearance with French President Francois Mitterrand on Tuesday, at which he said he urgently needed Western aid, but he said he was still weighing his best response to the traumatic events of the Congress.

In four days, the unwieldy legislature had taken a deep swipe at Mr. Yeltsin, cutting into his ability to appoint his own people to key Cabinet posts and making it harder for him to pursue further economic reforms. Even bigger attacks seem to be in store when the Congress next meets in June.

Since then, a chorus of his allies has grown louder, urging him to declare direct presidential rule.

Yesterday, Vyacheslav Kostikov, Mr. Yeltsin's often-excitable spokesman, told a group of intellectuals he was sure that the president had made a decision on what course to take. Mr. Kostikov just couldn't say what that decision was.

"One should wait a little longer to see," he said. "I think that a compromise and a dialogue with the Congress has become impossible. There is only one interlocutor left for the Russian president -- the Russian people, whom the president will address in the next few days."

If it comes, it could be one of the most important speeches of Mr. Yeltsin's career. From it, Russia will know how he intends to act over the next few weeks and months -- and how he intends to save both his presidency and the course of free-market reforms.

Comments by Russian officials and diplomats here give some idea of Mr. Yeltsin's scope.

If direct presidential rule means calling out the army, he probably won't do it. It's just too dangerous. (Some even say that Mr. Yeltsin won't resort to military force because he genuinely believes in trying to act like a democrat.)

If direct presidential rule means unilateral decrees, orders, directives -- lines drawn in the sand -- it will mean a clear and sharp battle with the leaders of parliament.

But Mr. Yeltsin could also go on television to seek a signature campaign for a referendum that would allow Russia to choose between a presidential and a parliamentary system.

Or he could simply repeat his proposal for a non-binding plebiscite. Or he could make a rousing, rally-the-troops sort of speech.

He might seek a quick decision on a new constitution, or call for early elections.

Some believe his best move might be to avoid a dramatic appeal altogether and pretend the Congress never met, in the $l reasonable hope that its leaders would misstep.

But Mr. Kostikov said Mr. Yeltsin had been "awakened" out of "his lethargy" by the Congress, and suggested that the president was getting into fighting trim.

Already, the president has accused his opponents of being Communists seeking a return to power. In fact, the Congress of People's Deputies, elected in 1990, is overwhelmingly composed former members of the Communist Party, and its hostility to economic reform is what brought on Mr. Yeltsin's troubles.

But no one talked much about Communists when the Congress first stirred with revolt last April, or even in December, when it forced out acting Prime Minister Yegor T. Gaidar.

This time, though, Mr. Yeltsin and his supporters have hammered away at the Communist theme. For the first time, last week, politicians and commentators talked about the contending sides as Reds and Whites -- an allusion to the bitter civil war that followed the Communist Revolution of 1917.

It's not the sort of imagery that makes conciliation appear likely. And it helps explain the tension here in Moscow as people wait for Mr. Yeltsin to make his move.

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