Yeltsin Banks on the Support Of People, Army, and Regions
With promises of economic reform no longer convincing, Yeltsin's more potent theme is to frighten the Russian people with the possibility of a return to the Communist era
MOSCOW — THE Boris Yeltsin who appeared on nationwide television Saturday night was the same man who stood atop a tank on August 19, 1991, to lead the resistance to the hard-line Communist coup, a leader courageous in his spirit and decisive in his actions.
The Russian leader called on his people to follow him into battle to complete the war against the Communist system they fought a year and a half ago. This time, Boris Nikolayevich warned of a "second October revolution" by the old nomenklatura, the Communist Party elite, "who have found a convenient niche" in the Russian parliament.
In defeating the August putsch, Yeltsin had several key weapons. As the only elected leader in Russian history, he could count on overwhelming popular support. At a crucial moment, the largely Russian armed forces of the Soviet Union, especially their younger generals and senior officers, refused to back the aged Communist leadership. And the regional elite, the heads of the Russian-populated regions and the 21 ethnically determined republics that make up the Russian Federation, backed Yeltsin in his dri ve to make Russia independent.
Yeltsin's ability to win still depends on those three factors - the people, the Army, and the regions. Whether they side with Yeltsin or with the parliament and its allies will determine the victor.
Yeltsin's popular support has steadily dropped during more than a year of economic reforms as uncontrolled inflation has eaten away at already depressed living standards. Polls, however, do not show a lessening of support for reforms as much as a loss of hope in the future, which is reflected in growing political apathy.
"This country is so tired," says Lena, a Moscow housewife. "The situation has been so bad for so long, people can't wait much longer."
Yeltsin acknowledged in his address on Saturday that change in Russia was "going too slowly and is too hard." But he sought to blame that on his opponents, accusing them of blocking reforms such as private ownership of land and spurring inflation by pumping out money to bankrupt state-run enterprises. His political message was accompanied by an eight-point package of economic measures, including pushing through land reform, guaranteeing privatization, backing small entrepreneurs, providing public works j obs for the unemployed, compensating those whose savings were lost due to inflation, and fighting corruption.
Such promises are no longer very convincing, as Yeltsin himself clearly understands. His more potent theme is to frighten the Russian people with the possibility of a return to the Communist era. In this, the Russian president can still tap a deep well of emotion. "If the communists come again, I will leave the country," vows Viktor Bakhtin, an artist from the Siberian center of Krasnoyarsk who backs Yeltsin's latest move. But if they are given the opportunity in a plebiscite to make a clear choice, the president clearly counts on the Russian people to once again pick him. And there is evidence to back that belief.
In a poll conducted throughout Russia in late February by the Russian Fund for Constitutional Reform, the Congress of People's Deputies and the Supreme Soviet, or standing parliament, had positive ratings of only 15 percent, with negative ratings of 67 and 63 percent respectively. Comparatively, the president was backed by 38 percent, while 43 percent said they did not trust him.
Yeltsin also hopes that the still-powerful instruments of force, the Russian Army and the former KGB, now named the Ministry of Security, will follow his commands and not those of the parliament.
"I have given the order to the Ministry of Defense not to allow the use of the Army for political ends," he said, adding that "my order guarantees the observation of human rights in its full measure."
The response of the Army and the KGB are far from certain at this moment. Security Minister Viktor Barannikov, in an appearance before an emergency session of parliament yesterday, took a carefully neutral position, saying that the ministry would respect the Constitution and would ensure law and order.
As for the Army, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev remains loyal to Yeltsin as commander in chief. But in his speech before the parliament, he criticized both the president and parliament for failing to respond to the Army's frequent requests for economic and material support. While saying that the Army wished to remain outside of the political struggle, he called the Army "a stabilizing factor" inside Russia.
Many suggest that the officer corps is deeply split in its views, angry over an economic crisis that starves the military of funds and leaves once privileged officers impoverished.
"There are different attitudes in the military," says Lt. Gen. Gennady Bochayev, deputy head of the Main Directorate of the Army's General Staff, "but in general the officers understand the situation isn't normal and it negatively affects our armed forces.... The two sides should be interested in the Constitution, in serving the good of the whole nation."
But General Bochayev assures that "the authority of the defense minister in the armed forces is high, so all orders that are issued will be carried out."
The most shaky leg of the triad of power for Yeltsin is among the regional governments. Whether from Yeltsin or the parliament, no decree - particularly Yeltsin's desired April 25 public opinion vote - can be implemented without their backing.
At the same time, the executive administrations of the Russian-populated oblasts (regions) and autonomous republics, as well as their local soviets (councils) are increasingly restive, pressing for greater independence from Moscow in economic affairs. They warn that the Federation Treaty signed last year, which grants them considerable autonomy, is not being carried out.
Both Yeltsin and parliament Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov are actively courting these governments, offering to grant them more authority. In his speech, Yeltsin promised "to pay special attention to coordination" with the regions and vowed that a new constitution would not violate the Federation Treaty.
But Yeltsin's unease over the role these regional governments can play was revealed in his demand for restoration of the "vertical chain of command." He backed this by firing the heads of the administration of two Siberian oblasts, Novosibirsk and Irkutsk, who have in recent months sided with anti-Yeltsin forces in the regional soviets.
"The president has bad advisers," says a senior official in the autonomous republic of Karelia, near Finland. While he refused to speak openly, the official expresses support for key figures in the anti-Yeltsin alliance, including Constitutional Court chairman Vitaly Zorkin and Vice President Alexander Rutskoi.