THE best that can be said about the wrestling match between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the Congress of People's Deputies is that it represents a process of political maturing. The struggles of the past week ended in a compromise that gave both sides something.
After threatening congress with a popular referendum that might have put it out of business, Mr. Yeltsin settled for an April 11 referendum on a new constitution and the likelihood of keeping his chosen prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, for at least four more months. The final selection of a new prime minister, however, will be subject to a vote of congress.
Yeltsin emerges from his confrontation with the legislators with little of his former political swagger. But his most vocal opponents, the hard-line deputies bent on reversing free-market reforms, lost much of their momentum, too. They had smelled victory. Restrictions were put on the president's power to choose his Cabinet. Yeltsin's call for a referendum to choose between him or the congress was blocked.
But the final compromise - worked out by Yeltsin, parliamentary speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, and Constitutional Court Chairman Valery Zorkin - cleared away some legislative obstructions.
Hard-liners vainly thundered in protest. They may have more to thunder about if the final draft of a new constitution eliminates the current body and sets up a two-chamber standing legislature. That step could reduce the conflict between executive and legislative arms of government - if, in fact, that conflict stems primarily from the presence of pro-communist deputies chosen two years ago under an electoral formula biased toward them.
But what's the mood of the Russian electorate? Yeltsin's popularity has slipped, as have living standards. Economic conditions are bleak for most Russians, though private enterprise and creative management is taking hold locally in outlying parts of the country. Reform orchestrated from the center has accomplished relatively little to date, not least because it has been stonewalled by managers of state-run plants and hard-line bureaucrats.
Free-market reforms may have to be joined with efforts to provide more services to the growing numbers of unemployed Russians, as Mr. Gaidar recognizes. The centrists in the current congress support this, and their position may prove most palatable to Russians generally.
Aid from the West remains critical, too. As much as possible, it should be directed toward sectors that hold the promise of creating jobs and tempering discontent. That could help the process of political maturation go forward with less explosiveness.