Suspending Rights to Promote Democracy: Russia and the Politics of Paradox THE NEW OCTOBER REVOLUTION

October 10, 1993|By SCOTT SHANE

Russia's first elected president dissolved its first electedParliament and enforced the dissolution with a murderous cannonade of tank fire. The vice president and Parliament chairman, who correctly pointed out that the president had violated the constitution, were among hundreds arrested and imprisoned.

The Constitutional Court was suspended. The Moscow City Council was forcibly dissolved and other regional councils firmly advised to follow suit. Opposition parties were suspended. Opposition newspapers and a television show were banned.

In short, as American headlines summed up events in Russia last week: Democracy won a major victory.

In a Russia groping its way along a precipice out of the ruins of Soviet totalitarianism, the politics of paradox are currently in ascendancy. President Boris N. Yeltsin uses authoritarian measures in the name of democracy, while the Parliament's authoritarians decry his moves with the rhetoric of democrats.

Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, an Afghanistan war hero whose political views seem to shift with the weather, started out in politics four years ago with a right-wing, nationalist, imperialist group called Fatherland. Two years ago, he dramatically reversed course, leading a reform faction out of the Communist Party, denouncing KGB bloodshed in the Baltic republics as "gangsterism," garnering 60 percent of the vote as Mr. Yeltsin's running mate and standing by his side during the harrowing three days of the August 1991 coup.

Then, last year, as economic reform began to bite into living standards, he denounced Mr. Yeltsin's economic advisers as "boys in shorts" and reshaped himself as a champion of the ordinary man. This year he accused the presidential team of corruption and appealed openly for the restoration of the shattered Soviet empire.

Parliament Speaker Ruslan I. Khasbulatov's gyrations have been less dramatic. Until 1990 an obscure, market-oriented economist working in a Moscow institute, he was elected to the Russian Parliament and chosen as Mr. Yeltsin's deputy, balancing his boss' gruff practicality with academic smarts. His 1991 book, "Burokraticheskoye Gosudarstvo" ("The Bureaucratic State"), mercilessly dissected the failings of the Soviet system. When the coup came, he was firmly on the side of Mr. Yeltsin.

Having replaced Mr. Yeltsin as Parliament chairman when his patron was elected president, Mr. Khasbulatov gradually shifted allegiances within the divided body. Like Mr. Rutskoi, he was openly skeptical of the shock-therapy tactics advocated by Mr. Yeltsin's advisers. He led the Parliament into a long standoff with the president, whose impeachment he actively sought last spring.

On September 21, when Mr. Yeltsin finally decided to try to end the political paralysis by stepping outside the constitution and dissolving the Parliament, Mr. Rutskoi, with Mr. Khasbulatov's backing, announced that he was president. That was legally correct, since an amendment before the 1991 presidential election set a booby-trap against dictatorship, stating that any president who violated the constitution automatically would be removed from office. When the standoff escalated into physical clashes, the two Yeltsin opponents actively encouraged the fighting, and Mr. Rutskoi actually called on his backers to attack the television center.

Mr. Yeltsin, of course, has had his own metamorphoses. For a decade the tough Communist Party boss of Sverdlovsk, now Yekaterinburg, he offered gushing praise of Leonid Brezhnev at a time when the Soviet leader was a doddering alcoholic. In the mid-1980s, he enthusiastically embraced Mikhail S. Gorbachev's program to "renew socialism," but after his falling out with Mr. Gorbachev's team in 1987 he came to reject socialism altogether. For a time in 1989, a series of embarrassing escapades involving liquor promised to set him on the sidelines of reform, and Westerners and Russian intellectuals labeled him as authoritarian to the core and uncouth to boot.

But Mr. Yeltsin used the 1990 Russian elections to pioneer a new political movement that raised the republics over the tired Soviet Union and junked Communist illusions for market pragmatism. In 1991 he disproved widespread suspicions that he was imperialist at heart with a dramatic defense of the tiny Baltic republics' right to independence. In the August coup, he became an unforgettable symbol of democratic courage.

By submitting his program to voters in a referendum last spring and by promising elections to a new national Parliament and local councils in December and to the presidency in June, Mr. Yeltsin has reaffirmed his stand atop the tank of two years ago. Even his heavy-handed tactics in recent days seem hardly to have tarnished his reputation with Western leaders as a democrat at heart.

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