BORIS YELTSIN, whose political career has been lived on the edge of destruction, has taken his greatest gamble.
The stakes now are greater even than when the Russian leader stepped atop the tanks to defy the August 1991 hard-line putsch. For then Yeltsin arguably had no choice but to resist.
But Yeltsin's surprise declaration on Tuesday evening that he was dissolving the Communist-era parliament and ruling the country by decree until new elections in December came at a moment when he still had some less dramatic cards to play. Despite his display of command, Yeltsin cannot be sure of victory.
Yeltsin's ability to win now depends on the reaction of two crucial centers of power: the ``power ministries,'' as the Army, security services, and police are known; and the governments of Russia's regions. Unlike the August coup, when tens of thousands of people rushed to the defense of Russia's fledgling democracy, the reaction of the population is far less of a factor in this crisis.
``Everybody is sick and tired of all this endless and exhausting struggle. The population will be more or less passive,'' comments Sergei Blagovolin, a leading member of Choice for Russia, a reformist party headed by deputy premier Yegor Gaidar.
The streets of Moscow were notably calm yesterday. Even for those who support the president and his reforms, as most Muscovites seem to, it is less a question of democracy than of order. ``It is time to finish the confrontation and bring the country to order,'' says Yeltsin-backer Georgi Kostarov, a retired military officer.
On the other side of the barricades, the crowd of Communists and extreme Russian nationalists standing vigil outside the parliament had dwindled by yesterday morning to a few hundred.
Ilya Konstantinov, the leader of the hard-line National Salvation Front, tired from a night without sleep, admits disappointment in the popular reaction. ``There is no activity at all,'' he says from the White House, Russia's parliament building. ``What matters is the official structures.''
Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, an Air Force pilot and Afghan war hero who now claims to be the legitimate president, had contacted military units and district commanders, Mr. Konstantinov says. Mr. Rutskoi also appointed his own ministers of Defense, Security, and the Interior.
But the best the parliament can hope for may be neutrality. Yesterday President Yeltsin pointedly appeared in a Moscow square accompanied by Defense Minister Pavel Grachev and Interior Minister Viktor Yerin, who commands crack anti-riot troops and backs Yeltsin.
General Grachev told reporters yesterday that he had held negotiations with his commanders for the past two days. ``The leadership of the military has unanimously declared its loyalty to the defense minister and to Boris Yeltsin,'' he claimed.
Security Minister Nikolai Golushko also declared his backing for Yeltsin in an interview broadcast yesterday. ``We cannot allow a situation of dual power because it will damage the security of Russia and provoke bloodshed,'' the former senior KGB official said.
``Both in the Ministry of Defense and Security Ministry there are few genuine Yeltsin supporters, but for some time they will probably support Yeltsin if the situation is relatively calm,'' says Vitaly Tretiakov, editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, one of the country's leading liberal journals.
Mr. Konstantinov, emerging from a meeting with Rutskoi, says the key is the 88 regions and republics that make up the Russian Federation. The majority, he claims, ``are not going to carry out [Yeltsin's] presidential decree'' and hold the elections he wants.
Both Rutskoi and parliament chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov spent much of the night trying to mobilize their backers in the regions. The president's men were doing the same. But as of yesterday, most regions were still undecided.
``The leaders in the center are in the overwhelming majority on Yeltsin's side,'' says Mikhail Berger, a commentator for Izvestia, a pro-Yeltsin daily, ``but the situation is not that clear in the regions. We know there are quite a lot of hard-liners in the regions.''
A game of wait-and-see is perhaps most dangerous for Yeltsin. If the president appears unable to enforce his will, the claim of the Rutskoi-parliament camp to real power will gain credence.
``The major danger is if Rutskoi gets some significant support, we'll have true dual power,'' says Mr. Tretiakov. That could lead only to anarchy and the threat of civil war, he warns.
THE standstill resembles the August attempted coup. The failure of the putschists to deliver a knockout blow to Yeltsin within the first day or two was enough to turn the tide, rallying those who were on the fence to oppose the coup.
Here, too, both sides say that the situation of dual power cannot last long. ``We should hold on at least one day, and in a day I believe the situation will be stabilized,'' Konstantinov says. The current plan is to convene the Congress of People's Deputies, also dissolved by Yeltsin, to impeach Yeltsin and set the stage for his arrest.
Yeltsin has to block any such meeting or lose control of the situation, argues Mr. Blagovolin, a Yeltsin supporter. ``Yeltsin cannot allow them to act,'' he says. ``He has to go to the very end. He has to be strong and decisive.''