Crisis in Russia Comes to a Head

Parliament to meet as Yeltsin and opponents ponder compromise, elections, or emergency rule

THE Russian capital is embroiled in crisis as President Boris Yeltsin and an array of parliamentary opponents tussle for political power. An emergency session of the country's supreme legislature, the Congress of People's Deputies, has been called for next week.

The squared-jawed Russian leader rushes from delivering speeches to potential allies to hushed meetings with the Russian Army's top brass.

Ever since the Yeltsin government launched its radical economic reforms early in 1992, it has faced mounting opposition from a parliament still dominated by former Communists and their Russian nationalist allies. Together with the Russian Central Bank, which answers to parliament, these forces have slowed reforms and chipped away at the president's power to rule.

Attempts at a deal have regularly fallen through, and Mr. Yeltsin's ability to survive as president has become a main topic of discussion here. A recent poll for the European Community indicates some 42 percent of the Russian people think the country is headed for a dictatorship within the next year.

"This isn't another crisis, it is the same crisis," says Sergei Stankevich, Yeltsin's counselor on political affairs, in his Kremlin office.

According to Andrei Fyodorov, adviser to Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, "It is a conflict about the model of development for the country, what kind of system will exist here." The vice president leads the centrist opposition Civic Union alliance and is a frequent critic of the free market policies of the government.

"It is more a question of power," counters Mr. Stankevich. "I see no ideology - on both sides."

The battle has worn away Yeltsin's power and popular authority. At last December's session of the Congress, the president was forced to sacrifice his prime minister, reform architect Yegor Gaidar. He gained an agreement to hold an April 11 referendum to approve the basic principles of a new constitution that would lead eventually to new parliamentary elections.

But in the ensuing months, that deal crumbled as resistance to a referendum mounted. An attempt to reach a power-sharing agreement last month failed as well, leading to plans to hold an emergency Congress session on March 10.

Neither Yeltsin nor his more centrist opponents seems eager for a popular vote or for a complete breakdown of order. Only the more extreme forces, particularly the alliance of former Communists and Russian nationalists on the right, welcome the opportunity to profit from further instability. But the inability of Yeltsin and the parliament to reach a stable deal to date augurs a drift into confrontation.

Three basic options are currently being discussed in political circles:

* Reach a new compromise, one that at least patches over the problem.

* Go to the Russian people, either through referendum or new elections.

* Suspend the current constitutional order through some form of emergency rule.

In the past week, Yeltsin has hinted at all three. He has offered a coalition with the centrist Civic Union, which Mr. Rutskoi leads. If a compromise cannot be struck, Yeltsin says he will seek public backing, either through referendum or a non-binding public opinion poll. Speaking to his supporters among the Democratic Choice bloc, Yeltsin also threatened a "final option," widely interpreted as presidential emergency rule.

The thrust of Yeltsin's activity in recent days is aimed at an agreement, not a confrontation. He proposes that parliament leave the government free to pursue its tough anti-inflation policy, with an agreement by parliament not to increase spending and by the Central Bank not to print more money to subsidize state-run industry.

The Civic Union, supported by the state-run industry lobby, has a different deal in mind. Rutskoi adviser Mr. Fyodorov says the Congress will seek to amend the Constitution to make the president head of state on the model of Italy, able to issue decrees, sign treaties, and dissolve parliament. The Cabinet would be responsible to the parliament. At the least, Civic Union hopes to gain control of the key economic posts.

If a deal stalls, Yeltsin advisers talk of asking the Constitutional Court, the Russian equivalent of the Supreme Court, to rule on power-sharing. They seem resigned to the referendum being blocked - either canceled or its questions phrased in a way that yields no clear result.

In this deadlock, the possibility of new elections is gaining momentum. Rutskoi, who is emerging as a consensus candidate to challenge Yeltsin, recently backed parliament leader Ruslan Khasbulatov's proposal to hold elections by spring of 1994. Elections for the parliament and the presidency are now scheduled for 1995 and 1996, respectively.

Yeltsin's instinct for surprise attacks could lead him to call his opponents' bluff and agree to simultaneous elections, perhaps as early as this fall.

A growing circle of moderate liberals who are disaffected with Yeltsin warn against testing the nation's mood. "The number of those who can be involved in a destructive uprising or who vote for extremist forces in an election is growing," says Yuri Boldyrev, a democrat and head of the government's anti-corruption agency, who has broken openly with Yeltsin in recent weeks.

What seems least likely is a presidential coup. Most observers doubt he can count on the loyalty of the Army, KGB, and other security services to enforce such a move. And many warn it could further inflame regional separatism, leading to breakup of the Russian federation.

Though coup rumors quickly flew after Mr. Yeltsin's March 3 meeting with the military leadership, the gathering was clearly an attempt to create the appearance of military support. But even Yeltsin-backer Defense Minister General Pavel Grachev talks only vaguely about the Army's readiness to stand by the Constitution.

"There is no force which can secure a state of emergency on the entire territory of Russia," says Fyodorov. "You can secure it in Moscow, but not everywhere."

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