MOSCOW — JUST over a year ago President Boris Yeltsin rallied reform-minded forces around the Russian Parliament building to defeat a reactionary coup attempt.
But now the democratic forces are complaining that the Parliament, known here as the White House, has been taken over by conservatives bent on reversing the radical reforms that Mr. Yeltsin and his top lieutenants staked their lives on in August 1991.
Officials of Yeltsin's government warned last weekend that the conservatives aim to use a December meeting of the country's supreme legislature to try to "overthrow" the government.
Working out of their parliamentary offices, several leading conservative deputies have organized a powerful opposition bloc, called the National Salvation Front. The Front is scheduled to formulate its political strategy on Saturday, when it holds its founding convention.
The Front's organizational committee reads like a Who's Who of Russian nationalist and reactionary leaders, including Col. Viktor Alksnis, Parliament member Sergei Baburin, presidential candidate Gen. Albert Makashov, writer Valentin Rasputin, and retired KGB Gen. Alexander Sterligov.
The goal, says Parliament member Ilya Konstantinov, another Front leader, is to form a "government of national salvation." In a declaration published by the conservative Dyen newspaper, the Front called for the end of the "rapacious experiments of the Yeltsin-Gaidar government," referring to Acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, including privatization and the lifting of price controls.
"The economic crisis in Russia is now so deep it threatens the very existence of the Russian state and the Russian people," Mr. Konstantinov told the Monitor in an interview in his White House office.
The Yeltsin government, seemingly more vulnerable with each passing day, is taking the formation of the Front very seriously. Vice Premier Mikhail Poltoranin has denounced Parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov for "accommodating" the Front organizers. Mr. Khasbulatov, in turn, has called for Mr. Poltoranin's removal.
Yeltsin has also criticized the Parliament's decision to convene a Congress of People's Deputies - Russia's highest legislative body - on Dec. 1. The president is pushing hard to get the congress postponed until next spring, giving his embattled government breathing space. More time is necessary, Yeltsin says, to draft and debate a new Russian constitution. Constitutional debate
Only the congress is empowered to amend or adopt a new constitution. A draft constitution is expected to be ready in November, but that would not allow for enough discussion for it to be considered by the planned December congress, Yeltsin argues. Pro-market forces consider a new Russian constitution essential to place market reforms on a sound legal footing.
Konstantinov and other Front leaders make no secret that they plan a major offensive against Mr. Gaidar's reformist government at the congress. The opposition claims it has the support of about 40 percent of the deputies. But to adopt a no-confidence motion, a two-thirds majority is needed. Konstantinov insists that finding those votes by December is possible.
"It's necessary to form public opinion in such a way that the deputies will support the idea of a government of national salvation," he says.
"It will be necessary to exert pressure on officials at the local level, conduct a mass-media campaign, and hold mass actions," he adds. "And when we speak of mass actions we mean legal demonstrations - the same means the Democratic Russia political movement used to get Yeltsin elected Russian Parliament chairman" in May 1991.
The downward spiral of the Russian economy could provide the conservatives the ammunition to launch their offensive. Government statistics forecast no end to the economic freefall.
At least one ardent nationalist group, Pamyat, has resorted to open action against reformers. Last week, 25 Pamyat members, some clad in black uniforms, stormed the editorial offices of the liberal Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. The intruders allegedly threatened staff with retribution for "belittling the Russian people," according to newspaper officials.
Pamyat leaders have alternately claimed responsibility, then denied involvement in the incident. Moscow city officials promise to bring charges against the group. Moskovsky Komsomolets editor Pavel Gusev warned the raid could mark the start of a winter of political instability.
"Today it's Pamyat," Mr. Gusev said. "Tomorrow it could be the conservatives, or even the `ultra-democrats.' This is just another sign that we live in a state where there is no law and order." Yeltsin feels the squeeze
Yeltsin, who has made concessions to the conservatives in the past to keep market reforms moving, appears to have little more room to maneuver. Even moderate opponents of the government, such as the Civic Union group, will not be satisfied unless there is a ministerial shake-up at the congress. Gaidar, however, has apparently warned Yeltsin that he will resign if even one minister is replaced, political observer Evgeny Krasnikov wrote in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper.
Konstantinov, the Front leader, says that drastic changes may not be forthcoming at the December congress. The Front may just try to weaken the radical reformers, then wait before attempting to deliver the coup de grace.
"Don't count on a final decision at the next congress," he said. "The height of the battle will be in the spring."
Democratization in Russia is not irreversible, Konstantinov argues, adding that he favors the "Chinese model" of development, which combines economic liberalism with limited political freedom.
Russia's history favors a "strong hand," and Russians will soon return to their authoritarian roots after dallying with democracy, he says confidently.