So who does Lt. Col. V.N. Krasnov salute now?
The 28-year veteran of the Russian air force, three strips of campaign ribbons on his left breast, drew in his breath sharply and fingered his ear while thinking hard.
“Well,” the bantam-sized officer said finally, “I gave an oath to serve the people, the Supreme Soviet and the government.” Gaining confidence as he spoke, the flier who now serves in a Moscow headquarters detachment added in a firmer voice: “Where the people go, we will go.”
But it is not “the people” who will decide the battle for power now spreading across Russia. It is the bureaucracies--the armed forces first among them--and local leaders and city or regional councils from Vologda to Vladivostok.
Confronted with rival presidents and contesting administrations, the uncertain Krasnov and millions of other Russian soldiers, police, office workers and elected officials were face to face with a crucial, almost surreal choice Wednesday: Which of the competing, mirror-image authorities to obey?
In Moscow, the first full day of crisis left the score definitely in Boris N. Yeltsin’s favor, but across Russia, the shakeout was just starting. One of Yeltsin’s closest advisers said the contest for power could last more than a week.
Yeltsin and his enemies both talked of constitutionality and the public weal. But one day after Yeltsin ordered Parliament dissolved, and Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi was empowered by lawmakers as Russia’s new (and competing) president, the crunch issue was not the parsing of legal texts but who could get control of the country’s military and naval bases, the telephone network, Moscow’s Ostankino television tower, Aeroflot’s fleet of jets and the country’s millions upon millions of pencil-pushing clerks.
Twenty-four hours after his bombshell announcement, Yeltsin had managed to keep the Cabinet firmly in hand, with the resignation of only the top official for foreign trade and the leadership of the key “power ministries"--Defense, Interior and Security--all on board.
“We are convinced that we fully control the situation, and we are also sure that the armed forces, the bodies of the Interior Ministry and the forces of the Ministry of Security are acting as a solid fist,” Interior Minister Viktor F. Yerin said.
Standing beside Yerin across from a McDonald’s restaurant, Yeltsin’s defense minister, Gen. Pavel S. Grachev, offered assurances in an impromptu sidewalk news conference that he had checked with commanders in the field, who checked with their subordinates, and that Russian soldiers would take orders only from him.
And the chemodanshchik , the large black suitcase that holds the launch codes for Russia’s nuclear arsenal, has not budged.
Parliament Chairman Ruslan I. Khasbulatov has called on the troops to disobey Yeltsin. But even die-hard foes of the president, such as retired army Lt. Gen. Mikhail G. Titov, acknowledged that it will be virtually impossible to swing the military over to Rutskoi and Parliament as long as the existing chain of command remains unbroken.
“The army can obey only one commander in chief, it cannot obey two,” the two-star general, in uniform, said outside the Supreme Soviet legislature chamber. “I would say that 80% of the army today is against Yeltsin. But they are disciplined. They obey the orders of their superiors. They were ordered not to leave the barracks, and they are not leaving them.”
That inactivity is likely to work in Yeltsin’s favor, but experts doubt that he can ask for more. First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir F. Shumeiko said that Yeltsin’s Tuesday ukase assigns the military the sole task of preserving Russia as a state. Yeltsin himself on Wednesday assured his countrymen: “There will be no blood.”
At the White House, the seat of Rutskoi’s would-be presidency, there were small but unmistakable signs that whatever the great constitutional issues involved, Communists and conservatives were proving incapable of getting their hands on the nitty-gritty of government.
The special telephone network run by the Ministry of Communications that connects the maze of state agencies was cut off to Parliament headquarters, meaning that Rutskoi and Khasbulatov could not assert control over the bureaucracy.
White House employees said the fleet of four-door sedans that usually shows up in the morning for deputies had been blocked in their parking lot, forcing anti-Yeltsin leaders such as Mikhail G. Astafiev to walk.
From Russia’s provinces came reports that deputies trying to fly to Moscow so the Congress of People’s Deputies can convene were turned away at the airport gate, told that their special free tickets were now invalid.
Television, solidly held by Yeltsin’s allies, painted a thoroughly one-sided picture of events, making it that much harder for Rutskoi to persuade the Russian people and local dignitaries of his legitimacy.
The popular 6 p.m. newscast on the state-run Ostankino network broadcast videotape of Yeltsin, his ministers and his backers throughout Russia but never gave Rutskoi a single minute.
Their special phones cut off, deprived of their usual means of transportation, the deputies seemed fated not to be interned by invading troops, as Khasbulatov had suggested, but left to stew impotently in their own juice. They are, said Yeltsin’s press secretary, Vyacheslav V. Kostikov, in a “political vacuum.”
But this time, unlike in August, 1991, when the drama of a right-wing grab at power was acted out at the White House and in a few adjacent blocks, there is more to Russia’s crisis than keeping control of Moscow. Given the institutional standoff here, it is mandatory to enlist support in the hinterlands, which, Vasily Lipitsky of the moderate opposition Civic Union said, “will be the deciding drop” that tilts the political scales.
By nightfall, Leonid V. Smiryagin of Yeltsin’s Presidential Council said in an interview, the executive authorities in 64 Russian regions and semiautonomous republics had thrown in their lot with the president, with only four opposed and eight sitting on the fence.
Another member of Yeltsin’s advisory panel, political scientist Georgy A. Satarov, said it may take seven days before the murkiness over who holds rightful authority is dispelled. He also elucidated the presidential strategy: If the central government can be held firmly by Yeltsin forces, the regions will be forced to fall in line.
“I think that for about a week they will be hesitant,” Satarov predicted. “Then, slowly, they will begin to crawl back.”
Yeltsin, some believe, is duplicating a strategy that succeeded once. “Yeltsin got rid of (Soviet President Mikhail S.) Gorbachev by aligning himself with the republics. Now he is doing the same with the provinces against Khasbulatov,” commented Sergei M. Rogov, military analyst and chairman of the Center for National Security Problems at the U.S.A.-Canada Institute in Moscow.
But carrying the quarrel outside the White House often simply multiplied the struggle for power between the executive branch, subordinate to Yeltsin, and lawmakers elected when the Communist Party dominated politics.
Even in Moscow, the City Council sided with Parliament, refusing to apply his decree, while the mayor appeared in public by Yeltsin’s side. St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly A. Sobchak gave Yeltsin qualified support, saying he must uphold promises made in the April 25 referendum to hold down energy prices and raise salaries and pensions.
Rutskoi late Tuesday night said he had held telephone conversations with 58 regional leaders and claimed that 80% “definitely supported law and the constitution” and that the remainder were equally divided between Yeltsin supporters and people who still had not made up their minds.
In the Kremlin’s thinking, Satarov replied when asked, it is enough for Yeltsin to isolate the Supreme Soviet and act resolutely to enforce his authority nationwide. “This signal will be sufficient,” he predicted.
Presidential chief of staff Sergei A. Filatov said special presidential representatives will be heading to Russia’s far-flung districts, apparently to twist the arms of the recalcitrant.
Khasbulatov’s call for immediate nationwide strikes against Yeltsin has fizzled so far, meaning that the battle for mastery of Russia will likely be played out in government offices and legislative chambers.
Times special correspondents Whitney Mason in Vladivostok and Matt Bivens in St. Petersburg contributed to this story.
Scenes in Russia’s Standoff Drama
Developments in Russia’s political struggle Wednesday, a day after President Boris N. Yeltsin dissolved Parliament and called for new parliamentary elections in December:
* Yeltsin, impeached by Parliament, retained the support of most of his Cabinet ministers, including those controlling the armed forces.
* Alexander V. Rutskoi, appointed acting president by Parliament, began assembling his own Cabinet.
* Constitutional Court Chairman Valery D. Zorkin proposed holding simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections, allowing Yeltsin to retain presidential authority until the results are known.
* About 1,000 anti-Yeltsin demonstrators gathered at the White House to express support for the beleaguered Parliament.
* Hard-line lawmakers called for a nationwide strike and reported anti-Yeltsin sentiment in some regions and republics.