RUSSIA faces a profound, but historically familiar, crisis of authority.
The political revolution that swept Russia after the failed August 1991 coup expelled the Communist Party from power and left the Soviet Union in ruins. But the revolution did not settle the most fundamental issues of political power - in whom and in what institutions does legitimacy rest?
Russia is now torn between two contending structures of power, the presidency and the soviets (legislative councils), both of which reach back to the Communist era and both of which have a claim to authority.
Today the legislature meets in emergency session, threatening to impeach President Boris Yeltsin on the grounds that he has violated the Constitution. If it does, the president intends to ignore the vote as illegitimate.
The situation is so familiar to Russian history that it has a name: dvoevlastie, or dual power. It refers to the period between the February Revolution of 1917, when the Czarist state was overthrown, and the October 1917 coup by the Bolsheviks, which established the Soviet Communist state. During that nine-month interregnum, power rested simultaneously in the liberal Provisional Government and the Socialist-led soviets.
In today's Russia, after the equivalent of the February Revolution, Mr. Yeltsin's presidency plays the role of the Provisional Government. His government not only has power to execute laws but also to legislate, by decree and by proposing laws.
But it is challenged by a nested set of psuedo-legislatures, beginning with the Congress of People's Deputies, the standing Supreme Soviet drawn from the Congress's ranks, and the regional soviets. Parliament chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, once a supporter of Yeltsin, bases his drive for power on an alliance of centrists with today's Bolsheviks, an axis of communists and extreme Russian nationalists.
Historian Viktor Miller argues that today's Russia, as in 1917, is in the middle of an unfinished revolution, which only began in August 1991. Under these circumstances, neither power can truly claim legitimacy. "What legitimacy can we talk about when a revolution is going on?" he asks. "Firm and legitimate authority can be established only after the revolution is over."
In this struggle, both sides claim to have legality under the Constitution, and yet both acknowledge that neither has it.
The structure of dual power rests shakily on the Soviet-era Constitution, which vests ultimate authority in the Congress but was amended to create a powerful presidency. Both the Congress and the president were directly elected on a competitive basis before the anticommunist revolution - the Congress in 1990 and Yeltsin in 1991.
A week ago, speaking to the Russian people, Yeltsin asserted that he alone had legitimacy and that the Congress represented the old order seeking to regain power. His opponents respond that all of them received a mandate and authority at a time when Russia was only one of republics of the Soviet Union.
"The president and our deputies were elected under conditions of one union and no independent state," Mr. Khasbulatov said March 23. "Both were elected under practically the same political conditions - the existence of the Communist Party with all its structures. That is why people now doubt the legitimacy of both the deputies and the president."
YELTSIN seems to be moving to accept the same conclusion. In a message to the parliament March 24, he argued that everyone was in violation of the Constitution because there is in fact no accepted legal order during this transition from the old socialist order to a yet-undefined system.
In this transitional period, "the legitimacy of the previously elected power bodies requires a confirmation, at least," Yeltsin said. "This confirmation can and must be made with an eye to the supreme arbiter - the people - who have remained the same and true to themselves."
Yeltsin insists this be done through a plebiscite, a combined confidence vote in himself and a vote on a new draft constitution on April 25. Khasbulatov, who said yesterday he does not necessarily favor impeachment, calls for early, simultaneous elections for both the presidency and parliament, a plan Yeltsin rejects.
Yeltsin's March 20 attempt to declare "special rule" has echoes of the summer of 1917 when the Bolsheviks tried and failed to seize power, leading Alexander Kerensky, the head of the Provisional Government, to try to secure dictatorial powers. An election to a Constituent Assembly was set for November. But in the meantime, under pressure of an unpopular World War I and economic collapse, the government's authority was slipping.
The Bolsheviks switched tactics, no longer openly trying to take over but acting through the soviets in the name of asserting their institutional authority. They used their moderate socialist allies, discarding them and the Assembly after they seized power.
When the October takeover occurred, American historian Richard Pipes writes, "this hardly seemed a revolutionary event: it was rather a logical extension of the principle of `dual power' introduced during the first days of the February Revolution.... The man on the street seemed to feel that it made no difference who was in charge since things could not possibly get any worse."
Yeltsin, brought up in the great school of the Communist Party, seems to be aware of this perilous precedent. "The bridge between the past and the future is tenuous so far," he wrote to the parliament. "A delay snatches the ground from under its supports. While the authorities are busy clarifying their relationships, the bridge may collapse."