MOSCOW -- After more than a year of narrowly avoiding it, President Boris N. Yeltsin and his sworn enemies in parliament have reached the point where someone must win and someone must lose.
If the dramatic events of the last week have revealed anything, they have shown the deep, irreconcilable differences between the two sides on the economy, politics and nearly everything else that matters for nationhood.
Mr. Yeltsin envisions a Russia freed from its Communist past, a Western-oriented nation that will make the transition to a market economy by way of unavoidably painful, risk-taking reforms.
The conservative parliament, led by its chairman, Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, and Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi, longs for a more familiar Russia, one not so distant from the Communist past. The legislators favor some freedom for the economy -- as long as they can protect the aging, unproductive state factories and enterprises that were at the heart of the old, failed system.
Each side has its own compelling vision of the world; each side sees an astonishingly different world. And the consequences of these disparate perceptions are enormous.
The fate of the world's largest country -- until recently one of its most fearsome superpowers -- hangs in uneasy balance.
Last week, after Mr. Yeltsin dissolved parliament and called for early legislative elections in December, the two sides discovered just how treacherous the political footing had become.
The parliament, retaliating against the president, elevated Mr. Rutskoi to the presidency and began setting up its own government and articulating its vision of the future.
No common ground
By the end of the week, one thing was clear: If there is any room for compromise left, it will not be generated from common sentiment -- none exists. Instead it will be found on the mutual fear that if they don't reach some kind of agreement, Russia could very well fall apart.
Mr. Khasbulatov outlined his deeply conservative views late one night last week as the Russian legislature, the Congress of People's Deputies, convened to defy Mr. Yeltsin.
"The economy still exists only because parliament didn't allow government to do away with state controls over the economy," Mr. Khasbulatov told his listeners. "The main point is that the market economy should be socially oriented. This is the task of the Parliament."
In contradiction, Mr. Yeltsin counts privatization of business and loosening of state controls as a major accomplishment of his leadership. Western economists agree. In Ukraine, where little privatization has been permitted, the economy is in even worse shape than in Russia.
The legislature wants to protect state factories by continuing to subsidize them, which requires endless printing of money, which is highly inflationary. Mr. Yeltsin's government wants to withdraw the supports, forcing unprofitable businesses to shut down.
The legislature wants to control prices; Mr. Yeltsin wants to free them.
"We need to control the prices of sugar, bread, oil and medicine," Mr. Khasbulatov said.
Last week, Yegor Gaidar, the architect of many of Mr. Yeltsin's reforms, said bread prices would soon have to increase steeply. State bread subsidies were becoming far too expensive, he said, for the government to bear.
Mr. Khasbulatov said that soldiers, teachers and other government employees should get higher pay. "We will not decide the problem of the budget deficit at the expense of the people, the military and teachers," he said.
In an effort to control near-hyperinflation (a prerequisite to obtaining important World Bank loans), Mr. Yeltsin's government has been forced to hold down such expenditures on the public sector in an effort to cut the deficit.
"I'll sign a decree on indexing wages as soon as possible," Mr. Rutskoi promised his supporters, even though indexing wages to rising prices also contributes to inflation.
Mr. Yeltsin has pursued a policy of friendship with the West. Mr. Khasbulatov says that Mr. Yeltsin has betrayed Russia in doing so.
"His policy is that of humiliation, which turned us into a semi-colonial country," Mr. Khasbulatov said last week. "He is like a servant to the United States."
Haves and have-nots ally
Mr. Khasbulatov's side is supported by an odd alliance of those who benefited most from Communist control and those who benefited least.
Those who benefited most are inside the White House, as the Russian parliament is known. They are the legislators, who receive such benefits as Moscow apartments, easy access to train and plane tickets and a host of other privileges.
Those who benefited the least have been standing outside in the cold, supporting them. They are the elderly, the marginally employed and others who neither grew rich under the old system nor managed to adapt to the new.
Robert Gurski, a retired comic actor in variety shows, discoursed on the phenomenon one day last week as he was out walking his dog, a big black Newfoundland named Gray.