Weary Russian rivals fight to a standstill

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The Independent Online
SOMEONE changed the painting at the top of the marble staircase, up which, for the second time in a month yesterday, tramped the men in ill-cut suits and the handful of plump women who have Russia's fate in their hands. When they last met in the Great Kremlin Palace two weeks ago they were greeted, at the end of a long red carpet trimmed with gold, by a huge portrait of Lenin, fire in his eyes, arms waving before an audience of young Communists in 1921.

Lenin, though, has vanished - and with him much of the fury and insurrection that attended the last emergency meeting of the Congress of People's Deputies. In the place of Lenin and Komsomol zealots now hangs a far less bombastic image: the shimmering domes of the Kremlin's Cathedral of the Archangel, bathed by a mellow Moscow summer sunset.

Just down the corridor, in the main hall of the palace, there was still much shouting yesterday. It started as soon as the session opened. For much of the morning, though, its focus was not President Yeltsin's decision to seize special powers but a muddle over voting cards, issued to each legislator to allow access to an electronic scoring system.

Mr Yeltsin's supporters accused Ruslan Khasbulatov, chairman of the Congress and the Russian liberals' greatest bugbear, of trying to prevent them casting their vote. Mr Yeltsin's foes countered by saying they had left their cards at home in order to sabotage the Congress. 'You forgot your card but I bet you didn't forget your expenses form,' said one. Beneath the painting at the top of the staircase was a ticket booth for Moscow theatres. One of the performances on offer was a play at the Hermitage Theatre: An Evening at the Madhouse. There were few takers, said the man behind the desk: 'There is plenty of madness here already.'

Yesterday's exchange over voting cards, like many others, was irrelevant. The key issue - whether Mr Yeltsin should be stripped of his powers - was never put to a vote. After a week of feverish brinkmanship, both sides in Russia's runaway power struggle pulled back from open war.

Perhaps the painting had something to do with it. Perhaps it was a plea by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexei II: 'I appeal to you all . . . not to push the country into chaos, destruction and civil war.' Or maybe it was that everyone is so worn out from long journeys back to the capital only two weeks after they left at the end of the last emergency session.

The most likely reason, though, is the stirring of a recognition, albeit grudging and still fragile, that neither side has the strength to win. Helping to bring some reason was Dmitri Volkogonov, a prominent historian: 'There are only 1,000 of us here. We will make our judgement. But there is also the court of history. Here our court is unreal. In history you cannot rewrite things. You do things once and for ever.'

But setting the tone was President Yeltsin, clearly exhausted by a struggle no less perilous than the one he launched by clambering on to a tank in August 1991. He stuck to his guns over holding a referendum next month but his presence alone was a sign: two weeks before, he had stalked out from the same hall, vowing never to deal with the Congress again. He also avoided the bombast of his television address to the nation last Saturday, when he accused Mr Khasbulatov of leading Russia into a 'second October Revolution'. Instead, he urged a truce: 'If these appeals from each of the conflicting sides in our society to eliminate the other prevail, Russia will perish.'

There was still plenty of anger. An explosive dispute over where power should lie - and with it the question of whether Mr Yeltsin will be allowed to hold his referendum - is no nearer resolution than before.

Outside, on the edge of Red Square, rival protesters were quarantined behind police barricades. Communist protesters chanted: 'Stalingrad, Stalingrad', urging hardliners on to final victory against 'Yeltsin's occupying regime'.

Running between the groups, across a no man's zone of cobblestone guarded by scores of police, was a faded zebra crossing. And, no matter how soothing some of the words were yesterday in the Great Kremlin Palace, it will be long time yet before either side is willing to cross it.

(Photograph omitted)