THE brutal struggle for power between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and conservative foes in parliament continues amid growing confusion over where the lines of authority and legitimacy are drawn.
The four-day emergency meeting of the Congress of People's Deputies ended Saturday with the president badly battered, his efforts at compromise spurned, and his powers weakened.
"The fight is not finished; it is only beginning," declares Ilya Konstantinov, the most unyielding member of the hard-line axis of Communists and extreme Russian nationalists.
With grim determination, the bearded head of the National Salvation Front lists his next targets: to seize control of the influential state-controlled television and mass media organizations; to oust the head of Russia's privatization program, the most important bastion of the economic reformers; and to take over the public prosecutor's office.
The final target is clear: Boris Yeltsin. "We don't speak of impeachment today," says Mr. Konstantinov, "but the more Yeltsin escalates the confrontation, the closer the question of impeachment comes."
The hard-liners show little fear of the much-discussed threat of a state of emergency with the backing of the Army and security agencies, the former KGB. "If Yeltsin seriously had support in the enforcement ministries, he would not have talked with the Congress," Konstantinov says.
For many Yeltsin supporters among the democrats, the president's angry walkout Friday from the Congress was an act of weakness, not strength. Each impulsive move, as happened when the Congress met last December, gives the hard-liners an opening.
"Now we are witnessing a political retreat," explains Vladimir Lysenko, head of the Republican Party, one of the factions in the democratic movement. "There are two paths - either a slow political retreat, a flexible political game with a hope to stop it without letting it grow into an armed putsch, or such cavalry charges by [Yeltsin] as we witnessed here and at the previous Congress. If he is not toppled directly after such moves, it will take place in the next few months."
At least for now, the dominant voice among Mr. Yeltsin's advisers is that of the moderates, men such as Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin, Vice Premiers Vladimir Shumeiko and Sergei Shakrai. They clearly oppose an authoritarian move by the president.
"There is an arbiter over both the president and the Congress - that is the people," says Mr. Shakrai, who also serves as Yeltsin's legal adviser. "There are only two legal means to resolve the crisis - a referendum or early elections. It is better to go to the polls than to take to the streets."
But Yeltsin's announced plans to go ahead with a referendum to decide whether there should be a presidential or parliamentary state is widely viewed as a hopeless tactic. The forces which blocked Yeltsin at the Congress, especially their supporters among the regional parliaments and the republics that make up the Russian federation, will surely try to obstruct the conduct of a vote. "In this case, the president will find himself on the brink of resignation," says Lysenko.
Already the Congress's refusal to back a referendum has turned the vote, tentatively set for April 25, into a nonbinding plebiscite. Such a vote could only be used, many here worry, to justify a presidential move to dissolve the Congress and rule directly.
"The aim of the irreconcilable opposition is to provoke him to such steps," predicts Lysenko, who adds that if Yeltsin makes another ill-conceived move, the Congress will move to impeach him.
This leaves only elections. The president has resisted this course, offering only to hold early parliamentary elections first, in 1994, followed by an early presidential vote a year later. But practically speaking, early simultaneous elections are the only alternative that could win Congress's approval.
The president's resistance to elections follows from the fateful choice he made after the failed Communist coup in August 1991 not to move quickly to pass a new post-Soviet constitution and hold new elections. Instead he used his overwhelming backing, both popularly and in Congress, to seek emergency powers to rule by decree. He then used these to implement radical reform, hopeful it would yield quick results as his advisers promised.
Instead, while reforms have brought change, they have drastically impoverished the Russian population, with no end in sight to collapse and massive inflation. Legislators, effectively using the confused legal basis of the old and amended Constitution, now feed off popular discontent to take back what they gave the president.
Only one force in the political spectrum seems to genuinely and eagerly seek elections - the hard-liners, who have their disciplined organization, ideological clarity, and their fanatical belief that they can speak to the formless longing of the Russian people for prosperity, order, and the restoration of Great Russia.
Many of the democrats, distrustful of the masses they once led so effectively, also show little enthusiasm for a new popular vote. "Elections won't change anything," says Anatoly Shabad, the leader of Democratic Russia. "Elections are a wonderful democratic mechanism," says radical democratic leader Pyotr Filipov, "but unfortunately they aren't always omnipotent."
But others among the ranks of supporters of reform, though not necessarily of the president's current course, argue differently. "The sooner the elections are, the more seats the democrats will get," says Oleg Rumyantsev, head of the Social Demcratic Party. "If there are elections a year later, I'm afraid the democrats will get no seats at all. "The democrats are fearful to take this step because they are so dispersed and unorganized," the young parliamentarian continues.
Rumyantsev believes Yeltsin should have walked into the Congress and taken the initiative out of the hands of his opponents, agreeing to their empty challenge to hold early, simultaneous elections as the only way to resolve the crisis. "So many obvious solutions were buried in these damn corridors of power," he says. "I am very angry."