For Yeltsin and His Reforms, Time Is Short

Despite Russia's referendum deadlock persists. Unless compromise is reached, power may shift to the regions.

RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin is facing the moment of truth.

Mr. Yeltsin achieved his prime objective by winning a significant show of support in the nationwide referendum April 25. But the president must move quickly to exploit this advantage, supporters say, adding that his opportunity could disappear for turning the popular mandate into concrete actions to protect Russia's democratic and market transformation.

"The next 10 days are crucial," says Sergei Kovalyev, a staunch Yeltsin supporter in parliament.

If Yeltsin hesitates, he could give the conservative-dominated parliament time to regroup and block his future reform efforts, particularly the promulgation of a new constitution, Mr. Kovalyev says. Thus, there is no guarantee the referendum will resolve the power struggle between president and parliament.

A continuation of the political deadlock - which has already stalled Russia's reforms - could have disastrous consequences for the nation, experts add.

"If the current situation continues, it would further weaken central authority, and it follows that power would devolve to Russia's regions and autonomous republics. It could mean the breakup of Russia," says Herman Diligensky, a political scientist at Moscow's Institute for World Economics and International Relations. "We can have a central government that doesn't wield any power ... something like China of the 1920s: a warlord era."

The referendum results sent Yeltsin opponents reeling. Preliminary results gave the president clear victory margins, with 58 percent of voters supporting Yeltsin's rule and 53 percent backing his economic policies. But the president failed to achieve a total victory; a proposal to call early parliamentary elections did not receive sufficient backing. The failure of the proposal to pass gives the legislature a legal basis for continued resistance to reform.

Even before the polls closed, opposition leaders - particularly Parliament Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov and Vice President Alexander Rutskoi - began efforts to rally their forces. Mr. Rutskoi is using allegations of government corruption to hit back at Yeltsin's team. Addressing parliament yesterday, he repeated vague charges first made last week on misdeeds in the highest echelons of power. He urged prosecutors to investigate, saying "documents are being destroyed."

If Yeltsin hopes to continue with reform, he must focus on three priorities: replacing the current Soviet-era Constitution; taking control of the Central Bank; and pushing for a new election law. Radical reformers criticize the Central Bank, now subordinated to parliament, for pursuing a hyperinflationary credit policy and are pressing for the ouster of bank chairman Viktor Gerashchenko.

Achieving Yeltsin's reform goals will not be easy, despite the referendum victory. The president's main problem is how to deliver a knock-out blow to opponents when he lacks legal weapons and must rely largely on moral authority.

Yeltsin supporters are divided over the course of action. Some, including Kovalyev, advocate "presidential rule," while others insist Yeltsin must act strictly within the Constitution. Yeltsin has ruled out the use of force to implement reforms. His opponents warn an attempt to impose special rule could spark unrest and destabilize the armed forces.

To introduce a new constitution Yeltsin will try to circumvent the conservative-dominated Congress of People's Deputies, currently the top constitutional body. Yeltsin's new draft constitution will go to Russia's regions for comment today, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Shakhrai says. A constituent assembly eventually may be called to draft the final document, and a national referendum held to approve it.

This course may run into judicial obstacles, however, and the effort could stall if it ends up in the Constitutional Court. Court Chairman Valery Zorkin has been an outspoken opponent of a new constitution, saying it would destabilize society.

Yeltsin may also try to push ahead with reforms at the next Congress, some observers say. The Congress has been an anti-Yeltsin bastion, but many deputies are voting against reforms because they are gripped by an "irrational fear" of the unknown, Mr. Diligensky says.

"If the path becomes clearer, then these people could go along with reform," Diligensky says. Yeltsin has already taken a step to reassure cautious deputies by appointing Oleg Lobov - a conservative, but a personal friend - as first deputy premier. The move indicates Yeltsin may slow the post-referendum reform pace.

"There is still room for compromise," Mr. Shakhrai told reporters April 27.

Shakhrai's statement runs counter to Russia's political tradition, which all but rules out compromise. Indeed, if Yeltsin is unable to overwhelm his irreconcilable opposition, there are few mechanisms available to proceed with reforms. "No one plays by the rules, because there are none," Diligensky says.

The lack of a solid political center that could mediate disputes hurts chances for compromise. The weak political center - embodied by parliament's Civic Union movement - already has polarized, Diligensky says, with a majority siding with the conservatives.

The politicization of the Constitutional Court deprives Russia of another vehicle for compromise, Diligensky adds.

Russia's first constitutional experiment from 1905 to 1917 also suffered from the inability of the executive and legislative branches to reach a power-sharing pact.

Czar Nicholas II introduced a constitution following the 1905 revolution, but refused to abide by it. He reasoned that as the absolute monarch he had granted a constitution and could revoke it at will. Deputies, meanwhile, used the parliament more as a vehicle to overthrow the czar than as a legislative body.

If Yeltsin fails to overcome the opposition, Russia could face collapse, just as in the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, Kovalyev says. Indeed, the referendum gave trouble signs for Yeltsin: Rural Russia and many autonomous regions did not support the president and his reforms.

"There's the risk not only of the break-up of Russia, but the complete breakdown of society, and that could lead to civil war," Kovalyev says.

Diligensky says another possible result of disorder could be a military dictatorship. "If the country is breaking up, someone may take it upon himself, under the nationalist banner, to try to save Russia."

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