BORIS YELTSIN'S declaration of emergency rule in Russia is the kind of bold and risky step only a strong leader can take. The Russian president has thrown open the future of his reform-weary country by asking the people for a referendum on April 25. Whether Mr. Yeltsin can get away with this is not clear. The parliament threatens to impeach him. But given Yeltsin's interminable stalemate with the old apparatchik-laden Supreme Soviet, he had to do something. His powers have drained for months; time was ma king him weaker. He had to take a stand.
Whether or not Yeltsin can be impeached is the kind of question that shows the constitutional tangle Russia is in. Can a body not elected by the people impeach a president who has been elected? A standoff puts the Army in the uncomfortable role of making a choice. So far, and thankfully, the Army has remained neutral - tacitly supporting Yeltsin. However, its officers are in turmoil. The breakup of the Russian Federation is what most bothers the Army. Increasingly, Russian provinces want the kind of auto nomy that could further weaken the Army. Russian intervention in Georgia last week is an example of Army hard-liners taking matters into their own hands.
By making April 25 his date, Yeltsin is betting that no immediate breakup will occur. It is unlikely reforms could emerge from a parliament dating back to Mikhail Gorbachev - especially one that can alter the old Soviet constitution at will. Moreover, Yeltsin is doing something Russians can relate to - making a strong move. He wants the people to say they want both a new constitution and a new parliament, and that he is the man to lead this change. Most Russians probably don't understand the kind of soph isticated parliamentary language and concepts Yeltsin proposed earlier this month for a popular referendum. But they do understand his warnings about a return to "communism," to a world of orthodox, hardline control rather than the doctrines of Marx or Lenin.
An unstable Russia means an unstable world. President Clinton's support for Yeltsin is on target. The United States backs the man democratically elected. The summit will go on. But the leaders of the West must wake up anew to the implications of Yeltsin's demise - and help avert it.