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How Many ‘Victories’ Can Yeltsin Stand? : Latest legislative vote is no boost for the besieged leader

“The people won, reform won, democracy won,” proclaimed a jubilant President Boris N. Yeltsin to a crowd of supporters Sunday night after a move to depose him failed in the Congress of People’s Deputies. Well, maybe, although it could be argued that many more victories like this and the cause of reform in Russia might surely be undone.

Yeltsin, by the narrowest of margins, was able to withstand the weekend move to oust him from office. He cannot, however, claim to have emerged stronger from this ordeal. For while his enemies couldn’t muster the votes to boot him out of office they did act to strip him of still more executive authority. Yeltsin, of course, indicates he will simply ignore the actions taken by the Congress in its four days of emergency meetings. That leaves the yearlong confrontation between president and legislature--a confrontation that turns on the fundamental question of who rules Russia--even more unresolved than before.

And so the power struggle goes on, the dangers to internal stability grow and the mounting uncertainties over where Russia is headed continue to raise international concerns.

Congress did agree, as Yeltsin proposed, to a national referendum on April 25, but the questions it wants put to the voters aren’t those the president wanted. Yeltsin hopes to bolster his popular mandate by asking voters if they still trust him, and he aims to trump his opponents by asking voters if they favor a new election law and a new constitution that would replace the Congress with a smaller two-house legislature. Congress’ set of questions, however, aim at undercutting Yeltsin’s political and moral standing. Among them are whether the public supports Yeltsin’s often painful economic reforms and whether it favors early presidential and parliamentary elections. To further load the dice, Congress insists that Yeltsin must be supported by 50% of all the country’s eligible--not just participating--voters.

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Were the immediate political stakes not so high and the potential impact on international affairs not so great, this duel in Moscow could be seen almost as a comic opera, full of childish absurdities and dare-you challenges. There is, though, nothing remotely funny about what is taking place, for on the outcome of this confrontation ride the nature and indeed the very continuance of reforms in the post-communist era, and Russia’s relations with the rest of the world.

Those relations will be very much in the spotlight this weekend, when Yeltsin is scheduled to meet with President Clinton in Vancouver. The Russian leader as of now intends to go through with the meeting, risky though it may be for him to leave Moscow at a time of political crisis. By proceeding with the talks, Yeltsin is emphatically signaling the primacy he attaches to relations with Washington. The meeting is no less important to the United States, indeed, to the Western World, for the highly visible chance it will provide to offer political and material support to the man who exemplifies reform efforts in Russia. U.S. officials have been at pains in recent weeks to connect the success of those reforms with hopes for a more stable world. Politics often involves exaggeration. In this case there is no hyperbole.


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