BORIS Yeltsin, who once convinced fellow classmates to jump out of a schoolroom window to hide from an unpopular teacher, will have his powers of persuasion tested yet again when the Congress of People's Deputies meets for 10 days in Moscow beginning Dec. 1.
President Yeltsin, confronted by escalating antagonism and opposition to his reform policies, will face a national litmus test confirming just how severely his public support has diminished. For weeks he attempted to postpone the meeting of the 1,000-member Congress, Russia's highest lawmaking body, which has only been in existence since May, 1989. However, the Russian Supreme Soviet, or parliament, which has the authority to convene the Congress and is stacked politically against Yeltsin, overruled him.
The parliament, made up of about 250 representatives and dominated by conservatives under the leadership of onetime ally Ruslan Khasbulatov, argued that current legislation dictates that the Congress must meet at least twice a year, leaving Yeltsin no choice but to acquiesce.
Although Russia has come a long way toward democracy and reform since the August 1991 coup, Yeltsin faces strong opposition from a cabal of hard-core reactionaries who wield far more power and influence than he wants to admit. It is this crowd, many of whom will attend the Congress of People's Deputies, who oppose Yeltsin's reforms and long for a return to the "good old days" of stability, law, and order under the communist regime.
During the previous session of the People's Congress, last April, Yeltsin deflected calls for his government's resignation and was given special executive powers allowing him to run the country by presidential decree. Those powers expire Dec. 1. Nevertheless, Yeltsin could defy the odds by persuading the deflated and noncohesive group of legislators that he is their only hope.
This time, however, his detractors have joined forces and mobilized an opposition which is causing concern and even alarm among the Yeltsinites. A powerful coalition, known as the "Civic Union" has formed, bringing together former communists as well as members of the still-functioning military-industrial complex. Their leaders include Arkady Volsky, head of an influential group of Russian industrialists and Alexander Rutskoi, Yeltsin's hand-picked vice president. The Civic Union claims to have about 40 p ercent of the legislators on its side and an undetermined number leaning toward its position.
A potentially more threatening group, the National Salvation Front, was formed in late October. It brings together both the far right and the far left - hard-line communists and right-wing nationalists, known as the so-called "brown and red alliance." It has called for Yeltsin's overthrow by constitutional means.
Yeltsin issued a decree outlawing the group, but he has no way of enforcing the edict. He has also supposedly instructed Russian ambassadors to alert the international community about the dangers of the Front.
CLOSER to home, Yeltsin has had to toe the conservative line, just as Mikhail Gorbachev once did. Yeltsin's powerful, six-man inner cabinet, known as the Security Council, meets every Wednesday to decide matters of state. In recent months, the scope of this group has broadened. It consists of Yeltsin and his embattled acting prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Shakhray, who represent the reformists and three conservatives who are Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, Deputy Parliam entary Speaker Sergei Filatov, and the Secretary of the Security Council, Yuri Skokov, who has long been known to be militantly anti-market, leaving little hope of the Security Council leading the way to a market economy, despite Yeltsin's pledges.
It may cost Yeltsin yet another of his seemingly endless political lives to stay on top during the upcoming Congress of People's Deputies. Clearly, Yeltsin has had to appease the conservatives and ensure that he is the one running the show - the very sin he accused Mr. Gorbachev of committing not so long ago. In fact, there are already signs he may be compromising on reforms demanded by the Civic Union.
While it is virtually certain Yeltsin will remain at the helm once the Congress is over, the new question might be whether or not his ship of state is slowly reversing course and heading into old and all-too-familiar waters.