FIVE years ago, Boris Yeltsin, deeply shaken by his Communist comrades' decision to remove him from all party posts, rose to the podium to say that he couldn't imagine his life without the party. And although it didn't stop him from banning the very same party in 1991, he may have been telling the truth.
The day when the Russian people are given a new ruling party - the "Yeltsin party" - may not be far away. The process of its creation is firmly under way.
Late last fall, the Russian president's closest adviser, Gennady Burbulis, tested the waters. He said the time had probably come for Mr. Yeltsin to think about his own party. But he only brushed the subject, carefully avoiding making an issue out of it: The memories of Communist Party politics were too vivid then.
The issue, however, was not forgotten. On Feb. 29, a leading Russian newspaper urged Russian citizens to consider the party idea. This paper, Izvestia, painted a grim picture of Yeltsin waging a lonely struggle for a new reformed Russia. "Despite all talk of privatization, the economy remains totalitarian, the people's psychology remains socialist too," Izvestia complained. "So not very much is needed for the return to the past. Possibly all that is needed is the removal of one individual."
This is false. Had Yeltsin really been a lonely fighter, he would have been dead on Aug. 19, 1991, when the communist plotters moved to seize power in Moscow. It turned out, somehow, that the president had thousands of supporters who converged on the square in front of the parliament building to defend him and the Russian reform movement.
But forget about those three days in August. Articles like the above never appear in the official press except to notify the public of leaders' intentions. That article may give a clue to what those leaders are up to.
"Only the creation of a ruling political party, a kind of 'Yeltsin Party,' can be a guarantee against surprises," Izvestia concludes.
Sources say the driving force behind the party-creating effort is Mr. Burbulis, Yeltsin's secretary of state - the Russian equivalent to the White House chief of staff.
Soft-spoken but a very astute master of political gamesmanship, Burbulis is probably the most influential man in Yeltsin's administration. Most ministers in the Russian cabinet were selected by him, with Yelstin only rubber stamping their appointment. Until recently, Burbulis also held the post of first deputy prime minister, but he dropped it in early April apparently for the reason of self-protection in case the government fell.
OR the last several months, Burbulis has been a frequent visitor to Russia's security agencies, always regarded as the key to real power in Russia. The "Yeltsin Party" campaign leads his agenda.
The new party is likely to regroup supporters of the present Russian leaders and provide them with a power base and recruitment reserve for future government appointments. But critics charge it could become an organization of careerists and ultimately evolve into some new type of nomenclatura - the system of politically motivated privileges that flourished under the Communists.
This April saw an important step toward the "Yeltsin Party." A huge gathering of the president's supporters, dubbed the "Citizen's Congress," was organized in Moscow on April 5 to put pressure on the Russian parliament, which Yeltsin thinks contains too many critics of his government. Make a note: This assembly was put above a democratically elected institution. And although no party was formally created, the gathering provided Yeltsin and his entourage with a possible foundation for party-building.
There is nothing inherently wrong in a desire to have a ruling party: Most countries have one. But given Russian totalitarian traditions, it is extremely important that this party not evolve into a system of governing through party structures rather than through democratic institutions.
Such a danger exists. The author of the Izvestia article lashed out against the two most vocal Yeltsin opponents - Vice President Alexander Rutskoi and parliamentary chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov. True, they give the president a hard time; but they are both democratically elected.
This attack, however, betrayed a desire to see rebellious politicians replaced by people that would adhere to the "Yeltsin Party" line.
I have been frequently asked whether Russia may yet return to an autocratic regime. The answer is yes, but those who think the threat comes from red-flag-waving Communists or from clownish nationalists are wrong. The biggest threat, in my view, is the possible evolution of the present Russian leadership toward autocracy. Democratic rhetoric alone cannot erase an authoritarian upbringing and education.
Ironically, the "Yeltsin Party" organizer, Burbulis, occupies the same Kremlin office that used to belong to members of the ruling Communist Politburo responsible for ideology and organizational work. Will this suite see the renaissance of business as usual?