RUSSIAN leader Boris Yeltsin and his Communist opponents have faced off like two gunfighters in an old Hollywood western at the Congress that opened last Thursday. They have stared at each other menacingly and pawed their boots in the dust, but their guns have stayed in their holsters. The emergency session of the Congress of Peoples Deputies, the republic's highest legislative body, was called by the Communists in the hopes of ousting Mr. Yeltsin. But the popular politician and his allies in Democratic Russia struck back, with demonstrations in the streets and a well-orchestrated move to create a strong Russian presidency with Yeltsin in the post.
After a series of key test votes, both political forces seem prepared to abandon an open vote on their real aims.
"Now it's a stalemate," comments Igor Sedikh, editor in chief of Russia's Information Agency, an independent news service. "Neither side has the force to win. There is no majority to kick out Yeltsin and no majority to make him president."
The confrontation between Yeltsin and the Communists takes place against a backdrop of economic collapse and industrial strife. The growing strike of coal miners demanding the resignation of the government of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is causing serious tremors. A large section of the metallurgical industry, led by the workers of the huge Uralmash plant in Sverdlovsk, carried out a two-hour "warning strike" last Wednesday in support of the miners. And tomorrow an unpopular nationwide increase i n retail prices goes into effect.
The drama of the Congress was heightened on its opening day as the Kremlin was surrounded by a massive display of Army and Interior Ministry troops, deployed to block a planned pro-Yeltsin demonstration. Politically the heavy-handed use of force ordered by the Gorbachev government backfired, however. The mood of the Congress swung heavily to the democrats' side on Thursday, as Yeltsin won key votes opposing the Kremlin's ban on demonstrations.
The democrats left the meeting that day full of confidence that they could push through a vote amending the Constitution to create a popularly elected presidency. Their political position was clearly strengthened by the tens of thousands of Muscovites who braved the military muscle to peacefully demonstrate their support.
"The support of the people is so overwhelming that it helps us to be in the upper position," Social Democratic party leader Oleg Rumyantsev, who heads the commission drafting a new Russian Constitution, confidently told reporters that day. The democrats were preparing to put a fully drafted amendment to the Constitution on the Congress table. Those amendments, which require a two-thirds majority vote, would implement a broadly phrased question in the March 17 referendum, in which about 70 percent of Rus sian voters backed creation of the executive post.
But the next day, when the democrats moved to put the presidency on the agenda, they narrowly lost the vote. The Communists, observers said, had worked hard overnight to rally their troops, while the democrats were relaxed and celebrating. Discipline among the Communists and their allies, who hold a small majority, remains intact, despite obvious attempts by Yeltsin to woo support from their ranks.
The democrats and the Communists quickly moved to create fallback tactics. The Communists, according to informed observers, will try to pass a resolution of disapproval of Yeltsin's handling of his post as chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet or parliament. "They will try to humiliate him," says Mr. Sedikh.
The Yeltsin camp is planning another referendum, this time on the actual constitutional amendments, to skirt the Communist roadblock in the Congress.
"Even if we don't suceed in passing the presidential measures at this Congress," says Rumyantsev, "we'll hold another referendum and we will eventually win."
Since the test votes, the Congress moved into an sharp exchange of polemics, begun with Yeltsin's keynote speech Friday, followed by the Communists' reply and then by debate on Yeltsin's report through Sunday. Yeltsin presented a refined version of the message he has been putting out for several months now. The crisis in the nation is the direct result of the Gorbachev government's unwillingness to carry out radical economic reform, he said. The center simply will not abandon its "monopoly," neither of power nor "of dogmatics of Marxist-Leninist teachings."
In his harshest statement, Yeltsin dismissed Gorbachev's reforms as merely the continuation of the "stagnation" of the era of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. But the Russian leader also tried to deflect charges that he is bent on confrontation. He revived an earlier proposal to form a coalition government of "popular trust and national accord" at the center. And he proposed "round-table discussions" that would include all parties. He suggested forming a democratic coalition of parties, including " progressively minded members of the Communist Party." These ideas were "designed to split the conservatives," said Rumyantsev.
The Communist-led opposition retorted with their own familiar charges, presented by Vladimir Isakov who heads one of the two houses of the Russian parliament. "A new dictatorship is coming under the drumbeat of demagogy," said Mr. Isakov, who used to be a Yeltsin backer. The Yeltsin confrontation with the central government has created chaos in the economy.
The Russian Prime Minister Ivan Silayev presented an economic program on Saturday that emphasized more rapid moves toward privatization, freedom for state-run enterprises, and favorable conditions for foreign investors. But such measures have been blocked in the past year by the Russian Communists and by the central government.
"Republics do not have enough rights to make real economic reform," commented Grigory Yavlinsky, the author of the radical 500-day reform plan who quit his job as deputy premier of Russia in frustration over inability to make real changes. Without their own currency, banking system, customs, and so on, he told reporters in the Congress hallway, Russians are like passengers in a jet piloted by someone else.