PERSPECTIVE ON RUSSIA : Yelstin Has Himself to Blame, Too : Tactical and strategic blunders turned a political confrontation into a government crisis that is far from over.

Prof. Archie Brown, director of the Russian and East European Center of St. Antony's College, Oxford, has just returned from a visit to Russia.

Boris Yeltsin remains for the moment Russia’s most popular politician, although some opinion polls earlier this year put his vice president, Alexander Rutskoy, ahead of him. Neither Yeltsin’s popularity alone, however, nor the fact that he narrowly survived the weekend attempt to impeach him means that Russia’s political crisis is over. It is, moreover, far from clear that Yeltsin gained any significant ground over the past 10 days.

Although much of the blame for the impasse lies with the Russian legislature elected in 1990--the Supreme Soviet and its larger parent body, the Congress of People’s Deputies--many of Yeltsin’s wounds are self-inflicted. The time when he should have moved resolutely for approval of a new constitution and new elections was in late 1991 or the beginning of 1992 when his successful leadership of the resistance to the August, 1991, putsch had put his hard-line opponents on the defensive.

Having failed to achieve then the constitutional changes that would have helped to avert the present crisis, Yeltsin had a second alternative. That was to realize that presidential power in Russia was what it had long been in the United States--the power to persuade. Yeltsin needed to use the prestige of his office to the full to retain the support of a legislature that was eating out of his hand in the autumn of 1991.

Yeltsin’s political skill, which still cuts ice with a mass public, has fallen well short of requirements not only in dealings with the legislature he inherited and formerly dominated but also in some of his relationships within the executive. He made a cardinal mistake in allowing several of his most trusted personal advisers to humiliate Rutskoy and freeze him out of the decision-making process. If Rutskoy is open to blame for joining forces with the opposition while still occupying the post of vice president, it is partly the ham-fisted treatment of him by Yeltsin and, more especially, his aides, who turned a useful ally into a dangerous opponent.


To his mistakes of a year and more ago, Yeltsin added two more in his March 20 televised address to the people. The strategic mistake was to say that he was going to take special powers to rule by decree and thus bypass both the existing parliament (however unsatisfactory a body it may be) and the existing, much-amended constitution (however overdue its replacement has become). By indicating that he was no longer even in principle prepared to try to persuade the legislature of the constitutional changes that needed to be made, Yeltsin set a confrontational course--one whose chances of success were not improved by his failure to consult beforehand on the legality of such a projected move with the chairman of the Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin.

The most serious disadvantage of seeking to impose a period of extraordinary rule by decree is that ultimately this would involve the president in relying on force. In the short term, Yeltsin probably can carry the army with him and, in particular, the crucial Ministry of Interior troops who come under the jurisdiction of the mayor of Moscow. But to the extent that Yeltsin puts himself in debt to those who have the means of wielding coercive power, he becomes dependent on them. It is far from clear that a Yeltsin increasingly beholden to the army, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Security would be an improvement on a Yeltsin sharing power with an often recalcitrant Supreme Soviet.

Yeltsin’s second error, a tactical one, was to push for a referendum rather than to call, in his March 20 address, for simultaneous and early elections for both the presidency and the parliament. It is still likely that Yeltsin would win a new presidential election, and democratic elections offer the best way out of the present impasse. The most hopeful moment during the current political crisis came at the weekend when President Yeltsin and the chairman of the Supreme Soviet, Ruslan Khasbulatov, reached their private agreement to hold such joint elections. It is tragic that the proposal was rejected by the Congress of People’s Deputies, although less than wholly surprising, since the abolition of the Congress and new elections for a smaller parliament would spell political oblivion for most of the deputies. But this is part of the price Yeltsin is paying for accepting the need for new elections too late.

Yeltsin’s courage has never been in question. His previously much-vaunted decisiveness, consistency and political acumen are, however, in grave doubt. He has changed his mind on important issues several times even within the past week. That in itself is not necessarily wrong, but his lack of a coherent strategy, either for replacing the parliament that stood by him in August, 1991, or for persuading it of the need for further constitutional change, has played its own unfortunate part in undermining the development of democracy in Russia.