Russia lumbers towards an explosion: Power struggle reaches point where neither Yeltsin nor parliament feels able to back down

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY'S judgment against President Boris Yeltsin by Russia's constitutional court, and the publicly announced preparations for his impeachment, leave Russia lumbering towards an enormous explosion.

It now seems unthinkable that Mr Yeltsin will voluntarily back down in his battle with parliament. Equally, parliament has pumped up its anti- Yeltsin rhetoric to such an extent that any softening of the onslaught would be an almost equally humiliating climbdown.

The anti-Yeltsin camp wants to call another extraordinary session on Friday of the full Russian parliament, the Congress of People's Deputies (which broke up, amid much bitterness, earlier this month). The Congress, in turn, is enormously hostile to Mr Yeltsin, and would not hesitate to oust him, if it thought it could get away with it. Thus it seems that only a loss of nerve by parliament can prevent the two sides from clashing head-on.

Ruslan Khasbulatov, chairman of parliament and Mr Yeltsin's chief opponent, yesterday described Mr Yeltsin's televised address to the nation on Saturday night as 'a direct attempt at a coup d'etat'. He said that the judgment of the constitutional court 'unambiguously' meant that the President could now be impeached.

At a news conference in parliament Mr Khasbulatov seemed concerned, however, to deny that the battles between the President and parliament should be seen as a battle between reformers and enemies of reform. He pointed out that there are more senior former Communists in the Yeltsin camp than in the Soviet-era Russian parliament.

There is, however, a flaw in Mr Khasbulatov's implied logic, that a head-count of Communist Party members is in itself proof of anything. Certainly Mr Yeltsin was, as Communist Party first secretary in the Siberian city of Sverdlovsk, a long-time, leading member of the party apparat. That fact is sometimes quoted by the anti-Yeltsin camp as though it were some kind of trump card.

But his subsequent history hardly suggests that he remained a yes-man. In 1987, he was sacked by Mikhail Gorbachev for being too radical. While still being cold-shouldered by the West, in 1989 and 1990, he made clear his new and growing commitment to the market economy and to a non-Communist system. After the collapse of the 1991 coup, he showed that this commitment to change was more than just a way of scoring cheap points against Mr Gorbachev, as Western leaders had long suggested.

If Mr Yeltsin abandons his current commitment to reform, that would be a reason to be worried. So far, however, he has not done so, nor does he seem ready to. On the contrary, his television speech on Saturday night that stirred up the latest hornets' nest included a renewed emphasis on the need to speed up privatisation of land - which his political opponents (including the Vice-President, Alexander Rutskoi) would like to slow down or to stop entirely. His opponents in parliament, by contrast, have shown little or no enthusiasm for change: 80 per cent are former Communist Party members. But that, in itself, is not the point at issue. What counts is that most, in sharp contrast to Mr Yeltsin, have never broken with the Communist legacy. They merely changed sides, when it was convenient to do so.

Some of Mr Yeltsin's leading opponents in parliament are in any case not ex-Communist hardliners, but former members of the reformist camp. Russian politics is littered with those who once proclaimed themselves to be liberals, but who are now the most outspoken nationalists or opponents of market reform.

Inevitably, with such shifting sands, it is impossible to define exactly who stands where - let alone whether they will be in the same camp tomorrow or next year. But - in the minds of the voters, at least - the broad-brush distinction is clear, as reflected in the crowds that the pro- Yeltsin faction and the pro-parliament faction attract. The pro-parliament crowds wave hammer-and- sickle flags, complain of Mr Yeltsin's 'treachery' in destroying the USSR, and mine a rich vein in anti-Semitic rhetoric. Only in the pro-Yeltsin crowds will you find even the hint of a commitment to market reform. Mr Khasbulatov's insistence that parliament does not represent anti-reform forces seems unconvincing, when you walk out of the doors of the parliament to be confronted by the pro-parliament demonstrators, with their Communist slogans and flags. The demonstrators speak of the need to 'support our constitution', making Mr Yeltsin sound like some crazed dictator seizing power from the elected parliament in a perfect, Swiss- style democracy. But, as the Communist propaganda phrase used to say, it was not by chance, nie sluchaino, that the pro-parliament crowds were on Monday addressed by Anatoly Lukyanov, unrepentant coup plotter from August 1991. By their friends, it seems, shall you know them. Leading article, page 21