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Old guard hero stalks champion of the people: Tony Barber on an epic power struggle between Yeltsin and Khasbulatov

IF ALL THE stories about Ruslan Khasbulatov were true, by now he would either be dead, locked up in prison, or the new leader of Russia.

Take the allegations levelled at the chairman of the Russian parliament last month by Mikhail Poltoranin, one of President Boris Yeltsin's closest political allies and therefore, by definition, an opponent of Mr Khasbulatov. According to Mr Poltoranin, Russia was within a whisker last October of its second putsch in 14 months, and Mr Khasbulatov was the villain of the hour.

Mr Poltoranin charged that armed groups of Chechens (a Muslim nation from the Caucasus in southern Russia) had flown into Moscow to reinforce Mr Khasbulatov's parliamentary guard, a mysterious outfit apparently under the chairman's personal control. Mr Khasbulatov, a Chechen himself, is then said to have commanded the units to seize 75 vital locations, including the Russian Central Bank and the television headquarters. The plot was foiled, so the story goes, by Mr Yeltsin's prompt decision to outlaw the parliamentary guard.

All this may seem rather too swashbuckling an adventure to have been dreamed up by Mr Khasbulatov, a pipe-smoking professor of economics who, in the Soviet Union of the 1970s, once held the post of 'acting chief, sector for co-ordination of research of questions of the scientific-technical revolution'.

But even if he is not guilty of trying to overthrow Mr Yeltsin by unconstitutional means, few doubt that there is much more to the chairman of Russia's parliament than meets the eye. A former Communist youth organiser who left the Party after 25 years in 1991, Ruslan Imranovich Khasbulatov is fighting a struggle with Mr Yeltsin, on the outcome of which Russia's ability to avoid social and political collapse may depend.

On the surface, it is merely a constitutional wrangle, a dispute over which branch of government should be the strongest. Should it be the presidency, as in France, or the legislature, as in Germany, or perhaps a careful balance of both with the judiciary thrown in, as in the United States? Mr Yeltsin stands for a strong executive presidency, and Mr Khasbulatov for a powerful parliament.

But anyone who thinks that, once this contest is settled, Russia will sail into the calm waters of Western-style democratic prosperity, should think again. The real stakes are higher, not least because there are so many actors on Russia's political stage who have no counterparts in the West, above all, former Communists and nomenklatura bureaucrats whose conversion to democratic principles is far from proven. The dispute between Mr Khasbulatov and Mr Yeltsin is only one part of a battle in which a far bigger question is being posed: can Russia become a stable democracy?

Not long ago Mr Khasbulatov, who turned 50 last November and recently published a book called Power, was a Yeltsin ally. The two men stood together at the White House, the Russian parliament building, when the democrats defeated the hardline Communist putsch of August 1991. After Mr Yeltsin gave up the post of chairman of parliament to take the presidency, he supported Mr Khasbulatov as his successor. An era of fruitful co-operation seemed to be in store.

Rapidly, Mr Khasbulatov upset the apple cart. He attacked the liberal economic reforms of the acting prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, and played a part last December in forcing his resignation. He demanded that Izvestia, Russia's foremost liberal newspaper, be put under parliament's control, and at one point even deployed security forces around the paper's headquarters in Moscow.

He also exploited the confusing procedures of parliament to strengthen his personal powers. While proclaiming himself a democrat, he built a base of support among the conservative ex-Communists who dominate the legislature. For them, and for the military-industrial lobby, Mr Khasbulatov represents a chance to cling on to powers and privileges that would ebb from them in a system purged of its Communist inheritance.

If Mr Khasbulatov's critics are to be believed, his sins go even further. He moved into a lavish apartment in Moscow once occupied by Leonid Brezhnev. He flies around Russia in his own plane. He turned a bodyguard service for top politicians into a 5,000- strong personal militia. He took control of the huge apparatus of the parliament and the old Communist Party Central Committee. He has acquired influence over the appointment of military and intelligence personnel, perhaps with the assistance of one of his most important advisers, Filipp Bobkov, the eminence grise of the former KGB.

So when Mr Yeltsin proposes to curtail the parliament's powers (he broadcast his latest appeal on television last Thursday), he is not merely hoping to expand his presidential authority at the expense of Mr Khasbulatov and the legislature. He is trying to prevent an unholy coalition of anti-reform forces - apparatchiks, industrialists, security officers and others - from sabotaging his efforts to turn Russia into a law-based state.

Mr Yeltsin, banking on his diminished but still considerable popularity with ordinary Russians, would like a referendum in April to settle the constitutional question. If that is unacceptable, he says, let there be a freeze on the existing division of powers until a constitutional assembly is called and drafts a new basic law.

Last Friday, however, Mr Khasbulatov gave short shrift to both ideas. Referring to the proposed referendum, he said: 'The current crisis in the country could turn this into an instrument of confrontation and threaten the integrity of the Russian state.'

Mr Khasbulatov, who once compared Mr Yeltsin's ministers to worms, says it is not he but the President who has authoritarian tendencies. Last October he alleged that he was being bugged and followed. 'I will die a violent death,' he declared.

Chechens know all about violence: Stalin deported their entire nation from the Caucasus in 1944 for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. Mr Khasbulatov, who was born in the Chechen capital of Grozny in 1942, was banished with his family to Kazakhstan.

It is unclear how seriously he expected his prediction of a violent death to be taken. Perhaps it merely reflected the suspicions of an ambitious politician in a country where politicians, ambitious or not, have often died by the bullet, rope and blade. But the longer his battle with Mr Yeltsin goes on, and the more acrimonious it becomes, the harder it will be for Russia's fragile new political system to accommodate them both.

(Photographs omitted)