IN acting to disband an obstinate legislature and conduct new parliamentary elections, President Boris Yeltsin is bypassing Russia's Constitution in the name of preserving the nation's nascent democracy.
Presidential allies, such as Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, defend Mr. Yeltsin's sudden move against his political enemies, saying such decisive action represents the only way out of the intractable political conflict.
But in employing Bolshevik-like methods, in which the ends justify the means, Yeltsin is running the risk of wrecking Russian democracy, opponents of his actions say. Lacking a democratic tradition, Russia is vulnerable to a return to authoritarianism.
``Here, a tough, authoritarian regime that preserved free enterprise, and the course to a market economy, would be welcomed by the people,'' says Viktor Kiselev, a sociologist at the Moscow Institute of Political and Economic Research.
Yeltsin's reasoning for dissolving parliament is that Russia's Soviet-era Constitution is secondary to the legitimate will of the majority, which favors a market economy. Both the Constitution and parliament are holdovers from the era of Communist Party rule, which ended following the failed coup of August 1991.
Throughout the political struggle, Yeltsin and his supporters have argued that legislators have not been acting in the nation's best interests, and instead are protecting their privileges. The deputies counter that their activity is dictated by the Constitution. Antireform stronghold
Under Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov's stewardship, the parliament has become an antireform stronghold, in which deputies opposed adopting a new, pro-market constitution. As the conflict with the president intensified, Khasbulatov silenced his critics within parliament, removing pro-Yeltsin deputies from key posts.
As a result, parliament has come under the domination of hard-line deputies, who recently have been exhibiting their neo-Communist colors. Mr. Khasbulatov and Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, who now claims to be Russia's legitimate chief executive, both have called for the revival of the Soviet Union.
The fact that the Constitution is riddled with contradictions gives added weight to the president's cause, his supporters say. But though he is ignoring the Constitution - which clearly makes the president's power-play illegal - Yeltsin is trying to preserve a sense of order in Russia.
In his televised speech Tuesday announcing the banning of parliament, the president stressed that the government would not order the use of force to end the political standoff. Moral obligations
While basing his decision on moral obligations, Yeltsin has sought to give his actions an air of legality. He cited constitutional provisions in his decree disbanding the parliament. He also said the April referendum, which overwhelmingly endorsed his rule, gave him legal latitude to act.
Following that plebiscite, Yeltsin sought to circumvent parliamentary opposition to a new constitution, convening an assembly of representatives from all Russian regions in June to hammer a compromise on a new Basic Law. Due to parliamentary resistance, however, the assembly's momentum soon stalled.
Mutual hostility then increased, and by the end of the summer the executive and legislative branches appeared to have irreconcilable differences on several issues, including the size of the budget deficit. Yeltsin said he was compelled to take drastic action because he felt the power struggle was starting to pose a threat to Russia's integrity.
Parliamentary leaders insist that Yeltsin is attempting a coup against the nation's legitimate democratic institutions. At a news conference Thursday, Khasbulatov called the power-play an attempt by Yeltsin to ``concentrate legislative, executive, and judicial authority in his hands.''
Under Yeltsin's parliamentary reform plan, the president will rule by decree until the new legislature is seated. The new bicameral parliament would then begin work on adopting a new Basic Law. Yet some Yeltsin opponents say parliamentary elections, now scheduled for December, may not take place.
Yeltsin's actions, they explain, have left Russia's 88 regions and autonomous republics, or nominal ethnic homelands, deeply divided. Some, such as Nizhny Novgorod and Udmurtia, have taken steps to distance themselves from the political chaos in Moscow, proclaiming that regional legislation takes precedence over federal laws. With the provinces taking matters into their own hands, many may choose not to participate in elections, they add.
``I'm afraid that [Yeltsin's] decree and the actions happening now may stop the democratic process, because there will be no grounds for elections,'' says Andrei Fyodorov, an aide to Mr. Rutskoi. ``This may end up not being a way out of the crisis, but a deepening of the crisis.''
Some Yeltsin supporters say new parliamentary elections are not vital - at least for now. The need for continued economic reform, they add, outweighs democratic issues.
``It's more realistic today to speak not about elections, but about only one choice - a choice between two systems of authoritarianism: The authoritarianism of either Yeltsin's or Khasbulatov's team,'' wrote political commentator Leonid Nikitinsky in the Izvestia daily. Under Yeltsin, reform stands the best chance for success, Mr. Nikitinsky said.
Nikitinsky's sentiments reflect a growing belief here that relying on democracy, at least in the Western sense of the word, is not the best way for Russia to revive its foundering economy.
Russia, throughout most of its 1,000-year history, has been governed in an authoritarian manner, first by czars, then by Communist Party bosses. Given such a dictatorial past it is unrealistic to expect the population and the government to strictly adhere to pluralistic principles, says Mr. Kiselev, the sociologist. Living standards
At the same time, democracy's ability to take root in Russia has been damaged by the drastic decline in living standards since the introduction of market reforms in January 1992. Indeed, many citizens now associate democracy with economic chaos and rising crime.
Under the present circumstances, the prospect of an ``authoritarian democracy,'' as Kiselev puts it, could gain broad support in a nation craving order. Thus, people may not care whether elections are free and fair, or even that they occur at all, as long as there is stability.
``We can't apply the standards of democracy to all nations,'' Kiselev adds. ``What seems to be democratic for Russia could be termed in the West ... a monstrous dictatorship.''