Yeltsin's Desperate Gamble

September 23, 1993

President Clinton did the right thing in not hesitating to back Boris N. Yeltsin in his power struggle with the hardliners of Russia's parliament. Recent experience had painfully demonstrated that unless the paralysis of power could be broken, holdover legislators from the communist past would continue to try to undo President Yeltsin's reforms.

Although he resorted to extraconstitutional means in dissolving the Soviet-era legislature, Mr. Yeltsin had little choice. The Russian president said he had to "break this ruinous, vicious circle" of old-guard legislators sabotaging government initiatives. He scheduled new parliamentary elections for early December.

Initial approval of the Yeltsin move by the Russian people underscores how sick and tired they are of the endless wrangling that has characterized the two years that have passed since the collapse of Soviet power. Most Russians have nothing but cynical scorn for the parliament's demagogues. That contrasts with the hopeful tolerance that ordinary people exhibit toward their president.

However, unless Mr. Yeltsin manages to defuse the legislators' rebellion against him quickly, the currently comical situation of rival governments may turn into a grave and embarrassing problem for him. Appearances are supremely important in Russia. A chief executive who appears powerless does so at his own peril. If a functioning national government evaporates, local satraps are likely to fill the vacuum. In a country that has been beset by separatist movements, that could spell trouble.

Mr. Yeltsin has been at loggerheads with the political opposition for a long time. Six months ago, he threatened to declare presidential rule to break the power of the holdover parliament and the Soviet-era constitution. In the end, he hesitated, pulled back -- and was nearly impeached by that same parliament.

That precedent would suggest Mr. Yeltsin cannot afford another compromise that might endanger his own leadership position. He has to insist on neutralizing his parliamentary foes but without provoking a situation that could lead to violent resistance by the opposition. Fortunately for Mr. Yeltsin, both the armed forces and the security police apparatus appear to be loyal to him. That must be a bitter pill for Alexander V. Rutskoi, the self-declared acting president who is a retired Air Force general. He was counting on aid from his military cronies for his effort to oust Mr. Yeltsin.

Throughout his two-year presidency, Mr. Yeltsin has proven to ,, be a dogged fighter for Russia's democratization. Under him, the unprecedented transformation of a communist country to a free-market society has progressed steadily despite repeated efforts at sabotage by the forces of the old order. Through this desperate gamble, Mr. Yeltsin is trying to make a final break with the past and give Russia a truly democratic future.

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