Taking It to the Russian People

March 30, 1993

Although Russia's president and its congress agreed not to depose each other, their struggle leaves that country without orderly government. The congress did more mischief yesterday before adjourning, leaving ordinary Russians confused about what has been decided.

The two sides are going to the people on April 25 in referendums that are supposed to straighten out this mess. But President Boris Yeltsin and the Congress of People's Deputies differ on what those referendums will ask. The administration of the election is in confusion, with the prospect of rival referendums raised by Yeltsin supporters.

Mr. Yeltsin thinks the voters will be asked whether they trust him, whether they want a new election law and whether they want a new constitution that would replace the Congress of People's Deputies with a bicameral legislature.

The congress decided to ask whether voters have confidence in Mr. Yeltsin, whether they approve of his free-market reforms, whether a new election for the existing congress should be held instead of waiting till 1995 or a constitutional revision, and whether a new presidential election should be held instead of waiting till 1996.

The Supreme Soviet, which is the smaller standing parliament created by the larger Congress of People's Deputies, should negotiate with Mr. Yeltsin on a common set of questions to ask, or the solution of going to the people will be no solution.

Beyond muddying the electoral waters, the congress maneuvered Mr. Yeltsin into collision with regional legislative councils. Like the congress itself, these have strong Communist blocs largely elected before the Soviet Union's final collapse. Mr. Yeltsin in 1991 established 66 regional administrators who report to him. The congress passed a resolution purporting to rescind the presidential decrees establishing these officials.

That leaves the legislative councils and Mr. Yeltsin in potential dispute over whether these officials exist. The issue is whether they will implement Mr. Yeltsin's free market reforms or the local governments will obstruct them. The outcome could be an anarchic patchwork of where reforms have and have not taken hold.

Both sides have learned to put up with less than absolute victory, for now. But the Russian political climate is stormy. Crowds in street demonstrations are getting larger, the speeches more violent. Too many parliamentarians are talking fatalistically about civil war.

But all of them from Mr. Yeltsin to the arch maneuverer, Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, have got one thing right: In managing the transition from communism to democracy, recourse to the will of the people should be more frequent rather than less. Russia needs stability in which reforms can grow, not ossification of discredited power structures.

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