'We are on the brink of revolution and unpredictable events,' said the Deputy Prime Minister, Sergei Shakhrai, on Friday after an uproarious session of the Congress of People's Deputies. 'Congress has led the country to a threshold beyond which lies a path to revolution, street rule and chaos.' A few hours later, Mr Shakhrai was on television. Crisis? What crisis? There was no need, he chastised journalists, to dramatise the situation.
Still more contradictory is Boris Fyodorov, another Deputy Prime Minister who, after a stint at the World Bank in New York, now oversees Russia's economic policy. 'There is no reason for hysteria or any feeling that everything is falling apart,' he said on Sunday in Hong Kong. Two days later, Mr Fyodorov was back in Moscow: 'The events of the Congress put under threat the entire course of reform.'
The one senior official to have shown any consistency is Andrei Kozyrev, Russia's Foreign Minister. Throughout the week he has stuck to the same theme. 'No panic . . . the reform process will continue and the foreign policy will remain unchanged.' But how to square such calm words with Mr Kozyrev's own warning in Stockholm last December that Mr Yeltsin was under threat?
What is going on? The crisis in Moscow is very real. It is a titanic struggle, the outcome of which will influence far more than just Russia. At times, though, it is also very silly. The currency of debate has been debauched, ravaged, like the rouble, by inflation. Moscow is awash with words: warnings of coups, promises of compromise, rumours of plots, threats of retaliation. Deals are made and broken; moods swing; bewilderment spreads.
With no real political parties to impose any sort of order, the main register of debate is often personal abuse; Ruslan Khasbulatov says that Mr Yeltsin is 'genetically linked to Bolshevism'. Mr Yeltsin accuses Mr Khasbulatov of 'sick ambition' and plotting to restore Communism.
Over the past 12 months the rouble has lost 75 per cent of its value against the dollar. Politicians may have lost even more. The public response: avoid the rouble and avoid politics. According to an opinion poll published yesterday in Izvestia, 26 per cent would support Mr Yeltsin in a referendum, 12 per cent would back parliament. But a large majority - 62 per cent - say either they have no opinion or would not bother to vote. Most wonder what the fuss over Congress is all about.
Nevertheless, both Mr Yeltsin and his rivals insist they have the people firmly on their side and claim to have been deluged with letters and telegrams offering support. The Kremlin, however, refused to divulge details of any of its mail. Guarding the parliamentary post room is Valentina Verstova, a friendly middle-aged woman. Stacks of fresh telegrams voice support for Mr Khasbulatov and rage against Mr Yeltsin. 'Don't let us be sold for American dollars,' writes N Didonko from Kranodarsk. 'Restore the Soviet Union. We don't need the market,' pleads V Vasiliev from St Petersburg. 'Workers support the Congress; don't bother about the cries of idle talkers and speculators,' advise a group of women from Saratov.
'You see,' says Mrs Verstova, 'the people are on our side.' It is a disturbing thought. From their letters, the people seem half mad. Perhaps more disturbing, though, is another thought: the people - all 150 million of them, not just the few score cranks who scribble to Ruslan Khasbulatov - are on nobody's side any more. How would they answer a multiple choice question on Russia's political future? Probably (c) don't know or don't care.
Boris Yeltsin seems to have sensed this. After days of back-room consultations and political polemics, he spent last night on something ordinary people really do care about - he went to watch a football match: Moscow Spartak versus Feyenoord of Rotterdam in the European Cup-winners' Cup Quarter Final. For once, all Russians could cheer for the same side.Reuse content