Does Yeltsin Vote Have Authority?

BORIS YELTSIN and the remaining center-left reform forces in Moscow hope this Sunday's national referendum gives a clear mandate for a new constitution and a new civil government. Yet both in Moscow and the West it may be important not to expect so much.

A Russian constitutional court ruling this week demands an absolute majority of Russian voters to bring about early national elections and the new constitution Mr. Yeltsin so desires. A huge 80 percent to 90 percent turnout voting for Yeltsin would be desirable. He needs a dramatic mandate to force the parliament to reform. But few observers feel such a turnout is likely.

In Russia, ancient forces are stirring that mere political solutions alone cannot contain. The problem in a country emerging chaotically from 80 years of dictatorial socialism is that there are no agreed-upon mediating authorities, such as are found in Western democracies. Such authority, a common understanding of political fairness based on a civic culture, would keep dangerous or extremist forces at bay.

Yeltsin is hoping Sunday's referendum acts as a mediating authority in Russia. But so many other predatory forces are at work that it is not clear this referendum contains the political authority necessary to force change. The recent propaganda attack by Yeltsin's new nemesis, Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, on the "corrupt and criminal chaos" within Yeltsin's circle, may hurt the president. It plays well in the provinces. And it may provide the parliament enough ammunition to declare the referendum il legal.

The tide in Russia is not toward democracy-building, but toward the accretion of power in Russia's many regions. Regardless of the outcome of this referendum, Yeltsin and the parliament must resolve their differences. Or at least, centrist players must be in control.

The alternative is breakaway regions, ethnic fighting, and powerful warlords rising up. Out of such chaos, any number of scenarios are possible, including the rise of a hard-line nationalist tied to the Army who will restore law and order to Mother Russia.

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