Yeltsin's Dark Muddle

THE past two days' bewildering crisis between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his hard-line parliament shows no immediate signs of being resolved. Mr. Yeltsin, representing what is left of liberal reform in Russia, has been locked in combat with an undisciplined right-wing Congress of People's Deputies that is a holdover from the communist regime.

Yeltsin is attempting new power-sharing to force political and economic reform. The Congress claims supreme authority under the old Soviet Constitution, and it is bent on an old pattern of quashing reform while printing ever more valueless rubles. The sensible resolution would be for the Congress to immediately undergo what Yeltsin has already stood for - a general election. A new constitution could follow that draws clear lines of power.

But this assumes a liberal political culture that Russia does not yet possess. There are too many Russian officials and politicians torn over the country's future, not yet able to give up dreams of empire throughout the former Soviet region. Yeltsin himself is not immune from this tendency. In a speech to the Civic Union last week, the Russian president argued that the time has come for Russia to seek "special status" in the United Nations that would allow the Russian Army to put down violence in territo ries of the former Soviet Union involving Russian minorities. This so-called Russian "Monroe Doctrine" is not so far from the argument for military action in the former Yugoslavia made by Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic. It is a dangerous idea, even if only a polemical trial balloon flown by Yeltsin for internal political reasons.

Yeltsin's direction is what President Clinton must feel out in the upcoming US-Russian summit in Vancouver April 3. Assuming the meeting still takes place, the former governor of Arkansas will be dealing with a street-fighting leader of an ancient country in crisis. The administration is right to meet early with him. As the only democratically elected leader among the major powers in the former Soviet Union, Yeltsin needs support. Clinton only has $600 million to offer. But he is developing a team that c an offer something President Bush did not - an activist interest and a correct definition of the problem Russia faces in a new and unstable world. That will help better direct the aid (though US leverage is not great). Moreover, White House efforts this week to hold an emergency session of the G-7 nations on Russia appear to be successful, with the Japanese agreeing.

There are dangers with the Vancouver meeting. The US could support Yeltsin only to find him taking dictatorial powers. Yet there are few real alternatives.

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