TRYING to capitalize on popular discontent over the Russian central bank's monetary reform, President Boris Yeltsin's opponents are playing some powerful cards in what's shaping up as the political end-game over the course of economic reform.
Mr. Yeltsin's lethargic response to the storm surrounding the monetary reform seems to have accelerated a process that some commentators here call "a war of self-destruction" between the battling political camps.
While the president issued a decree last week softening the effects of the central bank's shock move - which sought to withdraw all-pre-1993 bank notes from circulation - he didn't address the nation directly on the reform. His unexplained silence has ceded the political initiative to his hardline foes, led by Parliament Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov. It has also sparked speculation that Yeltsin's health is declining, and his desire to govern is waning.
"President Yeltsin's recent behavior is more than strange," wrote political observer Vitaly Marsov in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "Who controls the situation and how is it controlled? There are no answers."
Before a trip yesterday to Orel for ceremonies connected with the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Kursk, Yeltsin brushed aside concerns saying: "The state of my health is excellent." In Orel, Yeltsin championed reforms saying "No one can stop us."
Presidential advisers insist Yeltsin's will to rule remains unbent, but they admit his poor political judgment is creating problems. "He thought his political position was stronger than it actually was," says Georgy Sattarov, a Presidential Advisory Council member. "Almost everyone can sense Yeltsin's position has weakened and he has lost momentum, and the loss of momentum means the loss of initiative."
MR. Khasbulatov and his ally, Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, have launched a political blitz to discredit government reformers, and democratic forces in general. They have framed their attacks as acts of patriotism, defending Russia's interests against the West. They have used as a backdrop the anniversary of the World War II Kursk clash, the largest tank battle in history, in which Soviet forces smashed the Nazis.
Mr. Rutskoi, at a meeting this week with WWII veterans, blamed radical democrats for the breakup of the Soviet Union and attempts to ruin Russia's territorial integrity, the Interfax news agency reported. At the same time, Khasbulatov has spoken about the need to "enhance constitutional control over executive power." He has also tried to pin the blame for the monetary reform on Finance Minister Boris Fyodorov, one of the leading Western-oriented reformers in the government. Mr. Fyodorov has harshly conde mned the central bank's July 24 reform, while publicly denouncing Khasbulatov as a "liar."
Khasbulatov's and Rutskoi's patriotic ploy will appeal to significant segments of Russian society that have lost faith in the government because of monetary reform. Though Yeltsin's foes are finding little resistance, Khasbulatov seems reluctant to intensify pressure on Yeltsin. He delayed last Saturday's parliament session which was to discuss the political situation. "Khasbulatov is afraid of decisive action," said Yeltsin adviser Sattarov. "He knows all too well that drastic moves can lead to the self -destruction of both warring sides."
"Each participant in this corrida [bull fight] understands all too well that he won't be able to leave the arena without losses," wrote Igor Sichka in the Novaya Yezhednevnaya Gazeta daily.
"Apparently the desire to sweep the rival away is stronger [than the self-preservation instinct] and that means a war of self-destruction has started," Sichka added. "The one good thing about such a struggle is that it doesn't last long."