On television Tuesday night, Boris N. Yeltsin made his desperate, final stand.
With a stroke of his pen, like a Romanov autocrat, Russia’s president ordered Parliament abolished and its members, two-thirds of whom have become his critics or enemies, to return to their homes. Elections will be held in December for a new assembly, he said.
He moved to dissolve Russia’s legislative institutions, Yeltsin explained, for the sake of liberty.
Yeltsin’s avowedly unconstitutional attempt to make himself Russia’s sole national authority was his most extreme act since he faced down the tanks of the 1991 hard-line Communist putsch. It was also an unmistakable sign that this unique politician, immobilized in an energy-sapping power struggle with Parliament, realizes his time has run out.
The moment of truth--which has seemed inevitable since the collapse of the Soviet Union left Russia with a hybrid, semi-Soviet, semi-presidential system of government--has come.
But will Yeltsin’s attempt at a blitzkrieg attack on his adversaries succeed? Will the message that a stern, determined Yeltsin delivered to his country in a 20-minute speech Tuesday night salvage or doom his 2-year-old presidency?
Holding elections means exerting authority nationwide, and many regions have already rebelled against Yeltsin. His Cabinet rallied to his side, but Tuesday evening the army was making vague and noncommittal noises.
Within minutes of the president’s move, rival forces had declared that the tumultuous Yeltsin era in Russia was over. Yeltsin’s handpicked running mate turned irreconcilable enemy, Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi, was proclaimed acting president by parliamentary leaders who, ironically, assembled inside the same government building on the banks of the Moscow River that became Yeltsin’s command post during the August, 1991, putsch.
His gamble is obvious. This construction engineer from the Ural Mountains has had an innate ability to sense and act on the Russian people’s wants and desires. But lately he seems to have had a tin ear and has squandered countless opportunities. Now he is betting that the residue of his authority and charisma--and the faded glow of victory in a nationwide referendum last April--will win out over Russians’ veneration for duly constituted, albeit Soviet-era, institutions. He is also hoping to overcome the deep hurt caused by his government’s economic reforms and widespread indifference.
Tuesday night’s speech was hardly a blind throw of the dice, and in retrospect some of Yeltsin’s recent actions take on a new meaning. On Aug. 31, Yeltsin visited the elite Taman Motorized Rifle Division’s headquarters outside Moscow. Last Thursday he was the guest of honor at the Dzerzhinsky Division of Russia’s Interior Troops--precisely the sort of unit that would be called in to break up any disorders in Russia’s capital that Yeltsin’s decree might cause.
Yeltsin inspected the division’s vehicles and stopped in front of a truck equipped with fire hoses of the type used to dispel demonstrations. How far could the water reach? he asked. “Up to 60 meters,” a lieutenant colonel answered.
Yeltsin, one witness reported, seemed delighted.
On Saturday, he appointed a new security minister, Nikolai Golushko, to replace Viktor P. Barannikov, who had been fired as chief of the successor agency to the KGB. And to preempt exactly the kind of countermove that Rutskoi and the Parliament made Tuesday, Yeltsin decreed in a ukase of dubious constitutionality that the vice president could not replace him without his approval.
Quizzed by The Times last month, Yeltsin said his most grievous error over the past two years was his failure to seek early parliamentary elections immediately after the 1991 putsch. That would have been a key step toward reinventing Russia’s governmental institutions through a document to replace the Soviet-era 1978 constitution. Tuesday night’s decree was his attempt at a belated remedy.
But he and his entourage also failed miserably to seek an accommodation with moderates in the Supreme Soviet and with its chairman, Ruslan I. Khasbulatov.
Yeltsin tried to dominate the Congress of People’s Deputies and its smaller standing legislature, the Supreme Soviet, then to ignore it, then to have it replaced through constitutional amendments and early elections.
Eight-six percent of its members were once Soviet Communist Party members or officials, and inexorably, the assemblies turned into bastions of reaction and hostility to Yeltsin’s reform agenda.
Already in the spring of last year, Yeltsin was treating the members of the Parliament he himself was elected to in 1990 with overt contempt.
“What good are they?” he growled during a visit to a sausage factory. “If each of the deputies were to raise 10 bulls, now, that would be a real help.”
But out of a sense, Yeltsin said, of democratic fair play, he did nothing--although, he said, he had some sleepless nights debating whether to dissolve the Congress.
So why now? What was expected to be Yeltsin’s final political ploy--persuading regional leaders from throughout Russia to constitute themselves as a rival legislature to the Supreme Soviet, collapsed last Saturday, and some of the local VIPs even slipped off to meet with Khasbulatov.
An important date was also circled on Yeltsin’s desk calendar: Nov. 17, the day scheduled for the reconvening of the Congress. Yeltsin’s enemies, who tried but failed to impeach him last March, had made no secret of their plans to shear away his powers and turn him into a mere figurehead.
Finally, members of Yeltsin’s entourage say this lover of tennis and volleyball, with an oxlike carriage, may be very ill. Rumors racing through Moscow say he has cirrhosis of the liver from heavy drinking, or a lethal brain cancer. He admits only to having radiculitis (inflammation of the root of a spinal nerve). After visiting the Dzerzhinsky Division, he appeared ashen-faced and exhausted to members of his party.
Ironically, it was the Parliament that Yeltsin decreed abolished Tuesday night that hoisted him into a powerful state office that he could use to battle, and finally defeat, his nemesis, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. With a razor-thin, four-vote majority, Congress members elected Yeltsin the chairman of the Supreme Soviet in June, 1990.
With Tuesday’s speech, this politician--whose soul has been at war for the past two years over his penchant for the bold, unexpected stroke and the need to play by the rules of Western-style checks and balances--made his choice.
It may mean the end of his presidency.
In any event, in Russia naked power, perhaps even force--not constitutionality or legal texts--will again decide the nation’s future.