BORIS YELTSIN won a resounding victory in Russia's much-anticipated referendum Sunday. But he must waste no time in parlaying the "bounce" this gives him into action for a new Russian constitution and new national elections.
The vote brought sighs of relief in the West, especially the White House. Concern about Russian apathy and a drift toward overt nationalism were deep. Instead, 67 percent of the voters clearly supported Mr. Yeltsin - including on a question about his economic reform that was added to the referendum by hard-liners on the assumption that voters would reject it. The sabotage backfired.
Still, Sunday's victory should not be overdrawn. Russians always go to the polls in large numbers. Mikhail Gorbachev's referendums and Yeltsin's own election turned out more voters. Nor did the outcome lay to rest worry about looming tensions between Moscow and the outer regions of Russia, such as the North Caucasus, where secessionist forces are building. Boris lost the rural vote.
Yeltsin is popular, but weak; he has a some new moral authority, but hostile forces in the parliament lie in wait. He must act now, while he has momentum, to address the great needs in Russia.
Russia's greatest need is for a new constitution. The old Soviet Constitution does not settle problems of authority; it adds to them. So far, the White House and the West have focused on economic aid and market reform for Russia. But only by solving the problem of political authority and process can economic progress be made. Only with an agreed-upon constitution that assigns authority and power to institutions and laws can there be stability and economic progress. Only with a constitution can the presid ent of Russia work with a congress or parliament. Only with a constitution can a court system and, ultimately, a banking system operate.
Without a constitution that assigns the settling of disputes to courts, commerce laws can't be regularized. Currently, trade between regions is hampered by the high and uneven tariffs different regions charge for shipping.
In the short term, only with a new constitution will elections for parliament mean anything.
Yeltsin must act now to create a new constitution. Delay of even a month would be costly. He has a number of options (and draft constitutions) to work with. He has a victory under his belt. He must go on TV and tie the future well-being of Russia, economically and politically, to a new constitution. To defray his critics, he must show himself equally willing to stand for new elections if a constitution is agreed upon.
A semblance of authority in a country that still owns 27,000 nuclear weapons seems like a good idea.