They came from across Russia to the gilded splendor of Moscow’s Grand Kremlin Palace, 1,033 members of the country’s highest legislative body arriving for an anticipated showdown with President Boris Yeltsin. The legislators, a majority wanting to turn back the pace of Russia’s free market and political reforms, have been locked in a bitter power struggle with Yeltsin since last year. And the emergency session of the Congress of People’s Deputies delivered on its promised political theatrics. The stormy four-day meeting produced two walkouts by Yeltsin, countless warnings of impending civil catastrophe from both sides and—in the end—resolutions that sharply curbed the president’s powers. But although the deputies overwhelmingly refused to endorse the president’s call for a national referendum that would settle the dispute, the 62-year-old Russian leader defiantly pledged to hold it anyway. Weakened but not beaten, Yeltsin turned his back on the parliamentary forum to return to the political arena where he is most comfortable: as a populist crusader against the old Communist guard.
By any measure, the planned referendum is a gamble. Over the past year, Russians have grown tired of the continuing political intrigue and become dispirited by their sinking economy. Even as the rhetoric inside the chamber grew more provocative, the numbers of demonstrators both for and against Yeltsin outside the Kremlin remained small. But his decision to hold his own referendum on April 25—a non-binding poll that will ask Russians if they want the president or parliament to hold supreme authority—has many Russians suddenly voicing fears that the country might plunge into chaos. “It could even lead to the breakup of the country,” warned Ruslan Khasbulatov, the legislative speaker who has emerged as Yeltsin’s chief opponent. And while Russians still were far from splitting into rival armed camps, the confusion and uncertainty caused by the political battle heightened alarm at street level.
Last week’s events clearly unsettled other world leaders as well. In Washington, President Bill Clinton pledged support for Yeltsin— he is scheduled to meet the Russian leader in Vancouver on April 3 and 4. Clinton also
encouraged the Group of Seven industrialized countries, which will meet in Tokyo in July, to convene an earlier meeting aimed at finding ways to shore up the Russian economy and strengthen Yeltsin’s position. Russia, said the U.S. President, “can still have a bright future as part of a peaceful coalition of nations of the world and I just hope that we’ll have the opportunity toldo it.” To calm Western fears,
Yeltsin and senior Russian military officers pledged that they would not use force to resolve the power struggle—although the president does appear to retain the support of both the armed forces and internal security service.
But the political victories last week went to the hardliners in the congress. Discontent over Yeltsin’s economic policies, which have led to a steep decline in industrial production and soaring prices, have emboldened the reactionaries who control the legislature. After his election in June, 1991, Yeltsin amassed special decree powers, which the Congress has since continu-
ously culled at every opportunity. Last week, charging that Yeltsin had misused his authority through such acts as trying to ban the Communist party, a measure that has since been overturned by the country’s constitutional court, the deputies passed a harshly worded resolution that accused the president of wrecking the economy and plunging Russians into poverty. According to a resolution entitled Appeal to Russian Citizens, allowing Yeltsin to continue ruling by decree increased the risk of the country sliding back into dictatorship.
Last week’s legislative measures stripped Yeltsin of most of his authority. The architect of the parliamentary assault on the president was Khasbulatov, a 50-year-old former economics professor who was once one of Yeltsin’s closest allies. The two men stood shoulder-toshoulder against the right-wing coup plotters who tried to seize power in August, 1991. It was Yeltsin who largely arranged Khasbulatov’s rise to power by appointing him as his deputy. And Khasbulatov returned the favor by helping Yeltsin secure his presidential decree powers. But since then, their personal ambitions have turned them into rivals.
Now, as the prime mover of the anti-Yeltsin movement, Khasbulatov has earned fear and respect—but little affection—among deputies. For one thing, he is a Chechin, a member of a Muslim minority within Russia that wants independence for its enclave in the Caucasus mountains. In a country wracked by ethnic tension, many Russians express hatred for Chechins, blaming them for the country’s rising crime rate. But Khasbulatov’s political style also grates on some deputies. His language is sharp—last week he referred to members of Yeltsin’s cabinet as —and many of his comments towards the small number of women deputies have been sexist. But, said Bela Denisenko, one of the less than 50 woman legislators, “Khasbulatov is rude to men and £ women alike.”
i But even Yeltsin supporters ac| knowledged that Khasbulatov had I wounded the president. Mikhail Pol° toranin, a Yeltsin aide, said that the president’s powers had been so emasculated by the congress that he had been left a mere figurehead, with a status equivalent to that of the British Queen. Still, Yeltsin is a restless and impulsive leader who remains the most popular politician in Russia. He, too, talked tough last week, issuing several reminders that he enjoys the support of the military. His walkout from congress clearly signalled the end of that long-running drama. But there is no consensus on what comes next. Said one deputy last week: “Under communism we lived in a big concentration camp. Now, we live in a lunatic asylum.”
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