Showdown for Yeltsin

March 23, 1993

The most striking aspect of the power struggle in Moscow is the commitment of all sides, so far, to resolution by constitutional means. If only they knew what those are. It is a constitution crafted by the Brezhnev dictatorship, with the Russian federation then subsidiary and now paramount, and with bits amended along the way.

A constitutional court for the Russian federation has emerged, poised to play a pivotal role. Its presiding judge has given political opinions on television before hearing the case, so it is not at all what the U.S. Supreme Court is to American citizens. Everything is building to an impeachment process, probably starting tomorrow, which no one understands because there is no precedent.

The second most striking aspect, given similarity to the chaos between the April and October Revolutions of 1917, is the aloofness of the masses. This is a struggle within the ruling class. Multitudes are not in the street. The ordinary Russian is too anxious, depressed and disillusioned to rally behind any banner. Inflation is corrosive; corruption and crime are flourishing. Typical is the Muscovite who said, "But for me it's just like watching a boxing match on television. I may favor one of the boxers, but would hardly move from my sofa to support him even if I could." And unlike 1917, this is an educated populace, well informed by relatively objective media.

Public indifference may not last. But in the fantasy that the army, police and security police would impose a solution, the likelihood is that each is divided. The scariest prospect for the enemies of President Boris Yeltsin would be their own victory. Nothing unites them but opposition to him.

Mr. Yeltsin was elected president of Russia a year after the congress of deputies was elected and in a more open atmosphere. His call for a referendum as arbiter should have the support of all who think democracy right and possible for Russia. Yet his supporters must understand the risk. He has no assurance of winning elections he seeks.

The greatest danger from prolonged paralysis would be fragmentation of the Russian state. From chaos great evils would come. One would be a strongman mentality appealing to mystic Russian nationalism and nostalgic communism, with an appetite for scapegoats foreign and domestic.

As a politician, Mr. Yeltsin has always been at his best -- to keep the boxing analogy -- in a corner with his back to the ropes. He is an abler politician than his foes, but they outnumber him. Meanwhile, praise all sides for adherence to the rules, so long as they know the rules.

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