Moscow's Political Gridlock Bodes Ill for Russian Unity

PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin's drive to hold a constitutional referendum has stalled, and some political analysts are warning of upheaval throughout the Russian Federation.

"There is political paralysis in the capital, thus many regions in Russia are feeling they must decide matters on their own," says Vladimir Berezovsky, a political expert at Moscow's Center for Analytical Information of Contemporary Politics in Russia.

The latest sign of political gridlock is the struggle over the referendum on a new constitutional framework, scheduled for April 11. In an admission that he lacks the political muscle to push ahead with the referendum on his own, Mr. Yeltsin was to meet yesterday with his bitter political rival, Parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov. The two were to discuss alternative ways to end Russia's political crisis.

The president previously had argued a constitutional referendum was the only way to end the power struggle between the executive and legislative branches of government. Yeltsin wanted the vote to determine whether Russia would be a presidential or parliamentary republic.

Mr. Khasbulatov, meanwhile, has opposed the plebiscite since its conception in December. A growing number of prominent Russian political figures, as well as leaders in the federation's so-called autonomous regions, have joined the Speaker's view.

"What will the referendum lead to when passions are high, the country is impoverished and the situation is catastrophic?" Constitutional Court Chief Justice Valery Zorkin said Feb. 10.

Citizens throughout Russia also have shown little enthusiasm for a referendum, with many pointing to the vote on reshaping the Soviet Union in March 1991. In that instance, people voted overwhelmingly to revamp but preserve the Soviet Union, but the union disintegrated by the end of the year.

Yeltsin, Khasbulatov, and others are now talking about compromise, but such talk has been heard plenty of times before, without much to show for it, Mr. Berezovsky told the Monitor.

"It's impossible under current conditions for a compromise to last more than a few weeks," he says. But at the same time "neither side [executive or legislative] has sufficient force, or the resources, to win a decisive battle."

Some political experts now are speculating publicly the political stalemate actually is a harbinger of the president's downfall.

In a country where power struggles traditionally have been fought behind closed doors, a glaring public display of weakness, such as Yeltsin's backtracking on the referendum, usually has meant political ruin.

"Have we reached the threshold beyond which the post-Yeltsin era lies?" Vitaly Tretyakov, editor of the liberal Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily, wrote Feb. 10.

Berezovsky says it is too early to write off Yeltsin, but he adds that the president's future will be determined within a few months. Even if the referendum is never held, Yeltsin will face a crucial test at the spring session of the Congress of People's Deputies, Russia's parliament.

The referendum issue "is a big blow to his prestige, but it won't be the deciding factor," Berezovsky said. "People realize the parliament can't do much either and Khasbulatov is totally discredited in their eyes."

If the political crisis lasts much longer, experts say, there will not be much Yeltsin, or any possible successor, can do to reverse the centrifugal forces now pulling at Russia, with separatist sentiments rising in autonomous regions and agitation for greater economic authority from some Siberian regions.

Several highly industrialized provinces, including Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, and Krasnoyarsk, have come together under a so-called "Siberian Agreement" in an attempt to find a regional solution to the economic and political crisis. The end result of such a trend, some say, is the appearance of regional centers of power - perhaps in Novosibirsk in Siberia and Vladivostok in the Far East - that would compete with Moscow.

If local alliances strengthen, it would increase the chances for conflict, and possibly civil war, among Russia's regions, observers say. "There are dozens of scenarios for the outbreak of civil war," Berezovsky said.

The only way to defuse the crisis is to move forward with the referendum, overcoming apathy and separatism, wrote legal specialist Leonid Nikitinsky in the Izvestia newspaper Wednesday.

"The referendum is probably the last chance to reverse this trend of going toward `atomization-anarchy.' "

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