FOR two years there has been concern in the West that a new dictatorship might emerge in Russia - that the emerging democracy might be overthrown by an alliance of right-wing nationalists and left-wing communists. President Boris Yeltsin was perceived as the last hope for Russian democracy.
There seems to have been no concern in the American government that Mr. Yeltsin himself might become a dictator. Yet that is precisely what has happened. The present Russian government is a dictatorship in Lenin's classic definition: rule based on force and unlimited by law.
When he took office in 1991, Yeltsin swore to obey the Russian Constitution. His decision of Sept. 21 to dissolve both the Congress of People's Deputies and the Supreme Soviet was unconstitutional.
In dissolving the legislature, the president also abolished the constitutional commission, set up in 1990 to write a new charter for Russia. Yeltsin has now issued his own draft constitution. There is to be a vote Sunday on the draft.
United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher and others who defend Yeltsin have accepted the argument that the 1978 Russian Constitution was a remnant of the Communist era, not deserving of respect.
However, the constitution in effect on Sept. 21 was a radically different document from the 1978 version. Most of the Soviet-era provisions (such as Article 6 which gave a monopoly to the Communist Party) have been repealed by the Congress of People's Deputies.
In particular, the three main protagonists in the October struggle - the president, the Congress and Supreme Soviet, and the Constitutional Court - were all created in 1990-91 and cannot be dismissed as remnants of the Communist era.
The Constitution specified that the president did not have the authority to dissolve or suspend either the Congress or the Supreme Soviet. It further stated that if the president abused his power in this way, his authority as president would be automatically terminated.
On the evening of Sept. 21, the Constitutional Court ruled that the president had exceeded his authority and that his actions could be a basis for removal from office. Yeltsin ignored the court's finding. After the tragic events of Oct. 3 and 4, he issued a new decree suspending the court and putting it under the control of the Russian Ministry of Security - the successor of the KGB.
Violence began Oct. 2 and escalated the following day, when a mob marched through Moscow to the White House. Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, speaking from the balcony, urged the crowd to storm the major's office and the Ostankino television center. Mr. Rutskoi spoke on his own initiative, apparently without giving much thought to the consequences. I spoke with several Supreme Soviet deputies who were in the building, and all agreed that Mr. Rutskoi did not speak for them. Yeltsin, in a statement issued the next day, called the mob action an armed uprising, planned in advance by communists and fascists.
But there is no evidence of a right-wing plot. This conclusion is supported by Yeltsin's newly appointed prosecutor general, who has charged Rutskoi and others under Article 79 of the criminal code (provoking mass disorder) and not with conspiring to seize power (Article 64).
How real was the danger from ``extremist'' elements that Yeltsin cited in his statement?
The most notorious organization was the National Salvation Front, an unstable coalition of right-wing nationalists and communists that was organized in October 1992. Yeltsin immediately issued a decree banning the front, but his decree was overturned by the constitutional court. The front's stated objective was the removal of Yeltsin from office, but its manifesto promised to use only legal means.
The front was never a real threat, though it was a convenient target for Yeltsin's defenders. It broke up in July. Nonetheless, a government decree banned the front, along with several other opposition organizations.
Yeltsin has not returned Russia to the brutal oppression of Soviet rule. In theory the dictatorship will last only until a new parliament has been elected and a new constitution is in place. But a dangerous precedent has been set: If the executive finds his will thwarted by the legislature or the courts, he can simply abolish them.
On Oct. 15, the independent newspaper Izvestiya published a draft of a decree to defend public order. It would allow the government to control the movement of people throughout the country, impose a quota system for residents in certain cities, search buildings without warrants, and detain suspicious persons for up to 30 days (and give prosecutors the power to extend the period of detention to one year).
This decree has not been approved and may never come into force. But as an indicator of the trend of thinking within the Yeltsin government, it is a frightening document. In November, Yeltsin threatened to withhold television time from candidates or parties that criticized his draft constitution.
This threat was not carried out, but it shows the strong authoritarian streak in the president and his advisers.
Yeltsin has promised to allow foreign observers to watch the elections. But a new election law gives the government extensive powers over the selection of candidates. By his ruthless violation of the Russian Constitution, Yeltsin has dealt a severe blow to the development of Russian democracy. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.