FRAGILE hopes for a political compromise in Russia rose and fell during the past three days, only to be finally shattered yesterday.
In an act of what some deputies called "madness," the Congress of People's Deputies overwhelmingly rejected Russian President Boris Yeltsin's last desperate offers of conciliation, opting instead for confrontation. Ahead for Russia, some here are predicting, lie only struggle, chaos, and perhaps civil war.
A last effort at a political deal, reached early yesterday morning between Mr. Yeltsin and his archrival, parliament chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, was spurned by the Congress of People's Deputies. Instead, the Congress, under the leadership of angry Communists and extreme Russian nationalists, moved to remove both men from office. Last night, the Congress was voting by secret ballot. The results of the vote were not known at press time, but many observers thought the hard-liners would fall short of the tw o-thirds majority necessary to oust the president. Even if they should fail, however, prospects for stability are slim.
"Today is the beginning of complete chaos, not just a constitutional crisis, but an open clash," Yeltsin adviser Andranik Migranian commented at yesterday's Congress meeting.
By Sunday afternoon, the battle had already moved from the long hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace to the streets of the capital. The stern-faced Yeltsin strode out through the Kremlin's Spassky Gate and spoke to tens of thousands of supporters gathered on the Vasilievsky slope below St. Basil's cathedral.
"The time is up for compromise," the Russian leader vowed, holding up his fist defiantly. Yeltsin dismissed the move to impeach him, saying he would now go ahead with a vote of confidence in his rule. (Japanese aid to Russia, Page 6.)
"It is not up to those [deputies] to decide the fate of the people. I bow to the will of the people," he said. The crowd, waving the Russian tricolor, roared its approval. "If there is any disorder," he warned, "it will be on their conscience."
Across town, at the White House, the home of the Russian parliament, a smaller crowd of anti-Yeltsin demonstrators gathered, organized by the extremist National Salvation Front. Prominent Front figure and former KGB Gen. Alexander Sterligov called on the military to give its allegiance to their forces. "Russian officers should closely follow events and, if need be, have their word," he said.
The events in Russia are being closely followed in the West, where governments from Bonn to Washington have strongly voiced support for Yeltsin and his reform policies. Following a March 26 meeting with President Clinton, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl expressed a widespread concern that a victory for the anti-Yeltsin forces could plunge the world back into a new cold war, with an accompanying defense buildup.
"Both of us are aware of the fact that any type of setback [for Russian reforms] will be much more expensive than any assistance we give now," Mr. Kohl said. Opposition assails pro-West policy
The Communist-nationalist alliance against Yeltsin not only seeks to halt the free-market reforms but openly assails the government for pursuing an overly pro-Western foreign policy. Russian cooperation in crisis situations such as Yugoslavia would be virtually impossible under their rule, most observers agree.
Mr. Clinton is scheduled to meet Yeltsin on April 3-4 at a summit meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, and to offer a new package of US economic aid and ideas for reform. But the events in Moscow over this past weekend may make it difficult for Yeltsin to leave the country. "The final decision still has to be made," Yeltsin aide Sergei Stankevich told reporters Saturday.
After the first day of the Congress Friday, when the Communists and their allies failed to place impeachment on the agenda, hopes rose in both the West and in Moscow that a route out of the confrontation could be found. But fierce rhetoric followed on Saturday, with the introduction of a new resolution holding the president responsible for acting against the Russian Constitution in his March 20 announcement of a period of "special rule."
Late Saturday, Yeltsin suddenly rose to his feet, strongly opposing the resolution while admitting that he did bear some responsibility for the crisis. The president's supporters said later that he feared this resolution would be used as a first step toward his ouster. But Yeltsin's speech angered the deputies, who saw it as further evidence that the president intended to move against them. Some accused Yeltsin, who appeared exhausted, of being drunk, a charge frequently leveled at him in the past.
With neither side able to gain a majority in voting, Mr. Khasbulatov appeared yesterday morning with a surprise agreement reached with Yeltsin, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and some regional leaders.
The compromise called for holding early elections for both the president and a new, bicameral parliament on Nov. 21. The president dropped his insistence on an April referendum or plebiscite, which many deputies worried he would use to dissolve the Congress. The resolution chastised Yeltsin for his attempt to impose "special rule" and approved the decision of the Constitutional Court that this was inadmissable, but it avoided any attempt to hold Yeltsin legally responsible. Yeltsin allies reject compromise
But this deal was roundly rejected by almost every political faction in the Congress, including many democratic supporters of the president, gaining only 130 out of 850 votes. Pyotr Fillipov, a leader of the Radical Democrat faction, explained that many democrats opposed Yeltsin's decision to back down from a referendum.
The hard-liners, led by Russian Unity leader Vladimir Isakov, immediately moved to put the removal of Yeltsin from office, along with that of Khasbulatov, back on the Congress agenda.