Russian Hard-Liners Shift Tactics, Take Confrontation to the Streets
Riots may indicate new opposition strategy to fight Yeltsin's reforms
MOSCOW — REJECTED at the ballot box, President Boris Yeltsin's nationalist opponents are turning to violence in their battle over Russia's future political and economic course.
The May Day melee at Moscow's Gagarin Square - in which an estimated 500 police and demonstrators suffered injuries - marked a significant shift in the irreconcilable opposition's tactics. Realizing that a solid majority of the electorate backs Mr. Yeltsin and his economic policies, as seen in the April 25 referendum results, the opposition seems to be abandoning hope of achieving its goals through democratic means.
"The [May 1] riot signifies the activization of violent action," says Tatyana Shavshukova, a political scientist at Moscow's Research Institute for Politics and Humanities. "It was a probing action to test the [administration's] forces."
Yeltsin aides have condemned the National Salvation Front (NSF), which includes various nationalist and neocommunist groups, for inciting the riot. An opposition statement termed the melee a police provocation, adding that Yeltsin is seeking "authoritarian rule."
The NSF and other nationalist groups call Yeltsin's reforms "a sellout to the West." They want reforms to incorporate the communal traditions of pre-Soviet Russia.
Opposition leaders are undaunted by the prospect of further clashes with authorities. They are already warning that celebrations May 9, a holiday marking Russia's defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, could end in a conflict more violent than May Day's.
"May 9 begins today," Viktor Anpilov, leader of the Russian Communist Worker's Party, said on May 1. "Although there were no bullets today, there will be plenty of them tomorrow."
The fiery rhetoric of Yeltsin foes, including Mr. Anpilov and NSF co-chairman Ilya Konstantinov, is indicative of the desperate mood in the opposition camp following the April 25 referendum, analysts say. Using the popular mandate gained in the referendum, Yeltsin wants to break the opposition's back by promulgating a new constitution that would enshrine strong executive power.
"We shall fight to the bitter end," Mr. Konstantinov said. "The Motherland or death!"
The introduction of violence into the political battle perhaps is the last mechanism available to the opposition to stop Yeltsin's reforms, some analysts say.
"They [the opposition] are using Bolshevik methods," says historian Vladimir Dolin, an eyewitness to the May 1 events. "They're trying to radicalize people, making promises to people about social guarantees that they can never keep."
FOLLOWING the overthrow of the czar in February 1917, the Bolsheviks fomented unrest in April, June, and July of that year, hoping to come to power amid chaos. When those attempts failed, they resorted to an outright coup, ousting the provisional government.
Radical opposition leaders are agitating to squeeze out centrist Yeltsin opponents, starting with Parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov. Anpilov calls for Mr. Khasbulatov's ouster, naming hard-line nationalist leaders Sergei Baburin or Mikhail Astafyev as possible replacements.
Yeltsin supporters, meanwhile, are far from united. Radical democrats want Yeltsin to impose presidential rule, or ban opposition groups, such as the NSF. But so far Yeltsin appears unwilling to take such drastic steps.
Resolute action by the president is needed to defuse the threat, Ms. Shavshukova and Mr. Dolin say. But Yeltsin's options are limited, they add, citing the failed attempt in March to impose presidential rule and the Constitutional Court's decision overturning a Yeltsin ban on the NSF.
The best way for Yeltsin to respond, Dolin says, would be to strike at the opposition's growing power base by offering increased social benefits to those hard-hit by economic reforms. But Yeltsin will be hard-pressed to find sufficient resources to address the needs of Russia's burgeoning and discontented underclass, he adds.
The president is ready to take decisive measures, Sergei Filatov, Yeltsin's chief-of-staff, said in a television interview May 2. But Mr. Filatov also admitted that he had not spoken to the president about the situation.