Russia's Crossroads

A DRAMA unfolding in Moscow over nothing less than Russia's future structure of government shows that the world hardly sat still while the US decided on a new president.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin's powers technically expire Dec. 1 under the constitutional agreement made after last year's coup. Mr. Yeltsin's efforts to postpone that date to April failed last month when the majority hard-liners in the Russian congress, led by Ruslan Khasbulatov, Speaker of the parliament, blocked Yeltsin's move. Hence, the reforms begun last January, and Yeltsin's own viability, are at stake. A showdown is expected during the early days of the next US administration.

This is a battle over the idea of "Russia." One choice is Yeltsin's path of a Westernizing Russia. That is a Russia developing laws and honoring contracts, keeping relations within the confederation peaceful, ensuring that the military stays firmly under the control of an elected government, reforming toward a free market, and generally opening up. This is the path of Europe.

The other choice is of nationalists and ex-communists who reject the liberal Russia of Yeltsin. They want to trash the reforms of Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, retain some central planning, rule the confederation by fear and the arbitrary dictates of military force in former republics, allow the dangerously flourishing new mafias to grow, and generally close down the political openness of the past several years. This is the path of the former Yugoslavia.

Yeltsin is no saint. But the latter path is clearly irrational and brutal. Unfortunately, it has been gaining some acceptance due to the ongoing economic nightmare Yeltsin faces. His reforms have not yet taken hold; the central bank keeps printing money.

Moreover, various hard-liners use the rhetoric of "democracy" to paint Yeltsin as a dictator. Yeltsin has felt forced to exercise authoritarian powers - last week banning a right-wing group and a 5,000-man palace guard controlled by Mr. Khasbulatov. (The ban came after the guard stormed Izvestia, which had been printing anti-Khasbulatov editorials.) To appease hard-liners, Yeltsin also stopped troop withdrawals from the Baltics - unfortunate pawns in this high-stakes game.

How much power and mandate the Russian congress, elected under Mikhail Gorbachev, has is open to question. Yeltsin has a number of options, including holding a national referendum calling for new elections or changes in the constitution. Yeltsin would carry urban Russia; the countryside would be a risk.

The West must support Yeltsin and make it clear that if hard-liners prevail, aid won't occur.

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