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National Agenda : The Return of Yesterday’s Man : After the coup, many dismissed Gorbachev as a relic of the past. But his odd alliance with Yeltsin may make him more effective than ever.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Written off after the abortive coup last month as politically finished--one of yesterday’s men--President Mikhail S. Gorbachev is back in the center of Soviet politics, working to shape his disintegrating country into a new commonwealth of nations.

As he pummeled the Congress of People’s Deputies into ending Soviet rule last week, Gorbachev was again the master politician. Dealing where he could, browbeating where he had to and silencing those who were still opposed, Gorbachev became once more a dynamo of historic changes.

But Gorbachev was no longer alone. With him was Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin, his rival for the past three years but his savior in defeating the putsch, and together they acted.

And the alliance between the two men, so different in their outlooks, often contradictory in their approaches, is now a cardinal element as the country moves into the post-Communist, post-Soviet era.

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Working in tandem, Gorbachev and Yeltsin form what proved to be an irresistible force for change at the Congress last week. As Yeltsin pulled the arch-conservatives of the Russian delegation into line, Gorbachev dealt with other republics; when radicals demanded Gorbachev’s resignation, Yeltsin summoned them for a dressing-down.

The two have discovered that for now, at least, they need each other. Whereas Yeltsin looked like he was the one setting the agenda immediately after the coup, Gorbachev has returned with sufficient strength to have an equal voice.

How deep this harmony runs and how long it will last are uncertain. Gorbachev and Yeltsin have made peace before, only to see their truces crumble under the pressure of Soviet politics, particularly pressure from conservatives.

“Our relationship has not been an easy one,” Yeltsin commented at the end of the week during an extraordinary joint ABC-TV appearance broadcast twice on Soviet television and all across Europe as well as in the United States.

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“There have been critical times, and there have been normal, businesslike times,” Yeltsin added. “There were times when President Gorbachev thought I was a political corpse, and a time when I thought Mikhail Sergeyevich (Gorbachev) would not be able to continue as president of this country.

“But we have changed, particularly after the putsch. President Gorbachev has changed very seriously in the direction of the democratic movement, and on the basis of that towards radical reforms. This was the last obstacle between us, and it has been removed. Now, we are committed to common work--how to deal with the country’s crisis.”

Last week, the Gorbachev-Yeltsin alliance passed through its first test in abolishing the last of the Soviet structures in the central governtures in the central government and establishing transitional bodies until a new constitution is written.

Further collaboration is under way on redrafting the Union Treaty that will bind most of the Soviet Union’s constituent republics together in a new confederation and on reforms moving the country faster toward a market-based mixed economy.

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“The main thing is to proceed along our present course and move society to new forms of life and attempt to improve the lives of the people,” Gorbachev said during their joint television appearance. “Without this, no tricks, no publicity devices, no artificial scenarios will produce anything.

“That’s the main point, and my chief concern. While it’s my view, I think we have total agreement with Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin. And that, that is of the greatest moment today.”

Yeltsin, speaking to the Congress of People’s Deputies, emphasized his new trust in Gorbachev, blaming Gorbachev’s advisers--many of whom betrayed him and joined the conspiracy to depose him--for stoking an artificial rivalry between them.

There does seem a new sense of ease between the two. They shared the spotlight and divided the chores at the Congress. While frank about past differences during their television appearance, they were clearly respectful of one another.

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The picture of Yeltsin, finger thrust forward, dictating to Gorbachev at the Russian Parliament on his return to Moscow after the coup was gone. The new image--certainly calculated to reassure the nation and the world--was of two leaders working, side by side, to pull the country out of its profound crisis.

“Bring the chairs a little closer together,” a Gorbachev press aide said as preparations were made for the interview. “Let them look toward each other as well as the cameras.”

Who was helping whom here?

Gorbachev had returned from his three days of captivity at his summer house in the Crimea during the conservative putsch as a much diminished figure. His hours as a hostage had taken a clear toll.

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Yeltsin was the hero of the hour, the real victor in the showdown with the conservatives. Gorbachev encountered so much hostility that there was even speculation by radical politicians and commentators that he might have been the mastermind of the coup, not its victim.

His Nobel Peace Prize and the achievements that had merited it were all but forgotten, and such past accolades as “Man of the Decade” now seemed unintentionally ironic. Commentators in the Soviet press suggested with no hint of lese-majeste that Gorbachev’s time had gone, that he should now retire from the scene.

Gorbachev indeed seemed barely able at first to grasp the impact of the coup, the popular resistance to it and its ultimate defeat. He was defending the Communist Party when crowds in the street were ready to storm its headquarters.

Finally, speaking to the Supreme Soviet, the country’s legislature, Gorbachev declared with dramatic candor, “They say I have come back to a different country. I quite agree with this.

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“I can only add that the return to the different country from the Crimea was made by a man who sees everything, including the past, the present and the future, with different eyes,” Gorbachev continued.

“I will not tolerate any vacillation or time-marking in the reform effort as long as I am the president. There will be no compromise with those with whom it is impossible and unaffordable to seek agreement.”

These were more than words. With new decisiveness, Gorbachev first moved to dissolve the Communist Party, closing its headquarters, suspending its activities and nationalizing its property; he acted with equal firmness to curb the political power of the KGB, the Interior Ministry and the military and finally, in a political coup of his own, he forced the Congress of People’s Deputies to suspend its activities and establish an interim administration while a new constitution is written.

This cemented the partnership with Yeltsin. Gorbachev was changed and chastened by the putsch, Yeltsin said over the weekend. “It’s now interesting to cooperate with Gorbachev from the point of view of his (political) course, approaches and ideology,” the Russian leader said in an interview with European and Japanese television networks. “He is even gradually forgetting such words as communism.”

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Yeltsin described his relations with Gorbachev as “direct and balanced,” their viewpoints as “almost identical.” “Perhaps I am a little more radical, but that does not invalidate our cooperation,” he added, “rather, it helps it.”

Each man, in fact, brings different strengths to the partnership.

Yeltsin, immensely popular before the abortive coup, now scores in the 90s on most opinion surveys; Gorbachev draws as little as a 4% approval rating. Yeltsin, whose practical achievements before the defeat of the putsch were minimal, inspires popular confidence in change; Gorbachev, whose reforms transformed the country in his six years as leader, is seen as representing slow change or even the status quo.

But Gorbachev remains the more engaging politician, the better deal maker. He has the trust of other republic leaders, who clearly resent any hint of “big brother” treatment from Yeltsin’s Russia. And he can put together centrist coalitions that would elude Yeltsin.

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The Soviet president is “the man who unites all the others, and in this he plays a critical role,” Yuri Shcherbak, a liberal Ukranian deputy, commented, and Maj. Gen. Alexander Rutskoi, Yeltsin’s vice president, said of the tandem operation, “May their partnership last another five years.”

Over the past four years, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, who are both 60, have had sharply different visions of the country’s future and ways of politicking.

Even after the coup, Gorbachev spoke of reforming the Soviet system, failing to recognize that the putsch and its defeat had changed everything. With the greatest reluctance, he finally admitted that Soviet socialism had failed utterly and that the Communist Party had become so politically corrupt that only its continued hold on power mattered to most of the leadership.

Yeltsin, by contrast, has worked for abolition of the Soviet system and Communist rule since dramatically quitting the Communist Party a year ago; as Russian president, he has pushed a strong program for the economic and spiritual revival of the Russian Federation, the largest Soviet republic.

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Even as the coup has thrown Gorbachev’s gradualist plans to the winds, it has forced Yeltsin to broaden his viewpoint, considering more deeply not only what is good for Russia but also what is good for all of what used to be the Soviet Union.

What now weighs more heavily on the Gorbachev-Yeltsin relationship than policy differences, according to Kremlin insiders, is the difficulty the two camps have in communicating.

“At the top, they talk more and more, but at our level we don’t even return telephone calls,” a Gorbachev aide admitted. “There are hard feelings over the things that have been said and done in the past year . . . .

“Beyond that, however, we don’t really know each other very well. That’s not surprising because Yeltsin deliberately recruited men from outside the apparat and nomenklatura for key positions. We’re ‘The Establishment’ and they’re ‘The Outs,’ and we perceive each other as a threat.”

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Where Yeltsin’s staff is growing in numbers, experience and quality, Gorbachev’s has been decimated by the coup and the subsequent purge. The president’s chief of staff, Valery Boldin, was among the conspirators and has been charged with treason; he was replaced by Grigory Revenko, who had been the senior staff member dealing with the governmental restructuring. Those staff members who remained loyal have been promoted, but are stretched thin by the heavy workload.

“Gorbachev does not have a staff--he has a court,” another insider said. “These men have kept him blind with their bowing and their scraping and their yessing.

“Nobody tells Gorbachev anything that he might not like hearing, not if they can avoid it. Boldin was a real plotter, and the KGB was deliberately misinforming and disinforming the president. But almost everyone else participates in a conspiracy of silence that deceives him about the state of the country.”

But so confirmed is this as the political practice in this country that former Gorbachev staffers see the same trend developing around Yeltsin.

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The ultimate test of the relationship will come, of course, when a new constitution is drafted and elections are then held for president.

Gorbachev, aides say, intends at present to seek the political mandate that victory would give him. Yeltsin has said repeatedly that he would not. “I do not claim the post of Soviet president for myself,” he declared again over the weekend.

But would he, Yeltsin was asked, then support Gorbachev?

“I will say just before the election,” he replied, maintaining his political leverage on Gorbachev.

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Mikhail S.Gorbachev

Born: March 2, 1931, in Privolnoye, southern Russia

Career highlights: Studied law at Moscow University. Became a full member of the Communist Party in 1952. Appointed first secretary of Stavropol regional youth league, 1960. Promoted to head the party organization in Stavropol, 1966. Elevated to full membership in national Communist Party Central Committee, 1969. Became deputy of the Supreme Soviet, 1971. Appointed Central Committee secretary in charge of agriculture and moved to Moscow, 1978. Became a full member of the Politburo, 1980. Named Communist Party general secretary following the death of Konstantin U. Chernenko in March, 1985. Elected president of the Soviet Union by the Congress of People’s Deputies on March 16, 1990.

Quote: People are saying ‘Chaos, chaos, collapse, collapse.’ When Lenin watched a similar revolutionary process, he said: ‘You know, this chaos will crystallize a new form of life.’ ”

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--Moscow news conference, May 17, 1990


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