Yeltsin risks all to defeat his foes

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THEY WERE separated by only 50 yards of cobblestone, kept apart beneath a sullen Moscow winter sky by iron railings and shivering policemen in grey coats.

The real gulf, though, was immense. And it is on the stark choice between the two groups who gathered yesterday to scream abuse at each other on the edge of Red Square that President Boris Yeltsin has decided to take what could be his riskiest gamble yet.

On one side, clustered around a loud-speaker bus from Moscow Radio parked at the base of St Basil's Cathedral, stood President Yeltsin's supporters. Waving Russian flags and painted placards, they roared with approval as a Russian Orthodox priest, a Jewish rabbi and a long procession of other speakers mounted a flat-bed truck to warn of a hardline coup.

On the other side stood Mr Yeltsin's implacable foes. They too waved flags - red with a gold hammer and sickle, instead of the Russian tricolour. And they too screamed warnings of an impending putsch, though it is the government they accuse of plotting to seize power and end democracy.

The clarity of debate in Red Square contrasts with the muddled toing and froing of the Congress of People's Deputies, meeting a few hundred yards away in the Great Kremlin Palace.

In the Congress, nothing is clear. Elected in 1990 under Communism, it is riven by political factions. It operates under a jerry-built constitution inherited from the Soviet Union and marked by grave uncertainty about where real power should lie: in a strong president or in a powerful legislature. The president can name his prime minister but the Congress, Russia's supreme legislature, must confirm him; the president can fix economic policy but the Congress can chip away at its foundations. It is this deadlock over who should run Russia that President Yeltsin is determined to break.

After months of trying to negotiate with the amoeba-like groupings in the Congress - 14 at the last count - he has suffered only humiliating defeat. His candidate for prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, has been rejected; his control over four important ministerial appointments has been lost; his proposal for power-sharing has been rejected; his economic reforms have been ridiculed and condemned as contrary to the Russian people's interests.

To try and regain the upper hand, he has resorted to what has always been his biggest asset: personal popularity. Even now, after a year of 'shock-therapy' that has pushed inflation to more than 2,000 per cent and cut output by a fifth, Mr Yeltsin remains Russia's most popular politician.

But this popularity is also one of his biggest handicaps. It has prevented him from organising a political party based on issues, and left him reliant on personal loyalties. Few doubt Mr Yeltsin's commitment to democracy but many doubt his - and the country's - readiness for a democracy based on strong political parties rather than personalities.

For the President, though, the main issue is as simple as that being fought over in Red Square yesterday: the crude but comforting certainties of the old order on one side; the champions of change, no matter how painful, on the other. And, if he carries out his threat to hold a referendum on who should rule Russia and how, it is a choice the country will soon have to make. 'There is only one way to overcome the profound crisis of power,' he told stunned deputies yesterday. 'I ask the people of Russia to make their choice, to state which course they support.'

The referendum may well turn out to be merely a threat. But even unexecuted it could accomplish what he needs: to break Russia's political stalemate. It is a strategy of all or nothing and one that Mr Yeltsin has pursued many times before, most spectacularly of all, when he mounted a tank in front of the White House in 1991 to defy the hapless coup plotters.

For Mr Yeltsin the choice today is the same - for or against the old system. 'What they failed to do in August 1991 they have decided to try to accomplish now,' he thundered yesterday.

But, in his desire to appeal to the people over the politicians, he faces a dangerous dilemma. The Congress is indeed dominated by opponents of reform. But it is also the closest thing Russia has to a democratically elected legislature.

The Vice-President, Alexander Rutskoi, a rival to Mr Yeltsin, yesterday ridiculed attempts to portray the Congress as a new guise for the Communist apparat. 'It is time to end this slogan espoused by the government - 'either us or Communism'. Everybody here is for the reform. Society is overcharged with confrontation already. It is too strained and it may not withstand the pressure.'

But this is a risk Mr Yeltsin seems ready to take, just as he was in 1989 when he stood for election as a deputy: 'Nobody knows what will happen next, or where the step we have taken today may lead us tomorrow . . . Right or wrong, I have made my decision.'

Leading article, page 18

(Photograph omitted)