Yeltsin's Psychological Victory

April 27, 1993

It may take a few more days to establish the final results of Russia's weekend referendum, but exit polling, another newfangled Western political device in a country which shed communist rule only a year and a half ago, has given victory to President Boris N. Yeltsin.

His support may rise or drop in the final outcome, when votes from the countryside trickle in. So may the degree to which Russians agreed or disagreed with the performance of the old-style Congress of People's Deputies. But none of that matters. For now, a new psychological atmosphere has been created in Russia. With spring coming after a gloomy winter, hope is again in the air. Hope about renewal, a more stable economy, lower inflation, a better life.

The question is: Can President Yeltsin deliver? As is the habit of politicians worldwide, he made a lot of promises in the run-up to the referendum. He raised the minimum wage, he granted substantial supplementary welfare benefits to protect the population's savings and he took steps to increase trust in the country's banking institutions.

To President Yeltsin, the weekend's referendum provides some breathing space, nothing more. Even though many Russians expressed their disgust with the often-disorderly legislators and favored early elections to replace the communist-controlled parliament, the vote was not binding. Legislators are certain to discount the referendum and engage in even more energetic plots to undermine the president and his fledgling reforms.

To foreign governments, the fleeting new political atmosphere gives one more chance to transform unending talk about aiding Russia into deeds. Time is running out. If outside governments fail again in a speedy delivery of aid, they are likely to see new political stalemates in a country whose population, made cynical by seven decades of communist betrayals, is rapidly losing faith in prophets of capitalism as well.

President Clinton understands that only too well. "We cannot stop investing in the peace now that we have obtained it," he urged recently. He said financial assistance to the former Soviet Union ought to be seen not as an act of charity but as an "investment in our own future."

All that is true. But military threat was easy for Capitol Hill officials to understand. Fiscal aid to facilitate the former Soviet Union's peaceful transformation is far harder for American politicians to justify before their electorates. Yet such peace aid is nothing but military expenditure in disguise as long as Russia and a number of other republics maintain huge Soviet-era nuclear stockpiles.

The time to help Russia is now.

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