Yeltsin makes a drama out of a crisis again: Russia's President thrives on narrow escapes, but times are changing, says Andrew Higgins

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The Independent Online
THE lorry full of concrete stalled on the railway crossing. The driver, a callow young man freshly graduated from the Urals Polytechnic Institute, could hear the whistle of a train thundering towards him. Instead of jumping out, though, he stayed put, jabbing frantically at the starter motor to jerk the truck forward. Finally it rolled a few inches off the track as the train passed by, missing him by a hair's breadth.

The driver was Boris Yeltsin. It has been a long, hazardous journey from the Urals Heavy Pipe Construction Trust to the Kremlin. One theme, though, has remained constant: Boris Yeltsin adores drama. He thrives on narrow escapes. And last week, from the podium of the Great Kremlin Palace, he embarked on perhaps his riskiest gamble yet. This time, though, his luck ran out.

For Mr Yeltsin the choice last week in Moscow was identical to the one he faced at the level crossing in 1936: leap out or stand firm in the hope of salvaging more than just himself. He decided to risk it, just as he did in 1987 when he stalked out of the Politburo; in 1989 when he stood against a party-backed candidate in parliamentary elections; in 1991 when he ran for President of the Russian Federation; and, three months later, when he climbed atop a tank in front of the White House to halt a putsch everyone else thought unstoppable.

Rather than take fright at the menacing momentum of the Congress of People's Deputies - a course urged by many of his supporters - Mr Yeltsin decided to confront it head on. In a televised address before 1,000 stunned deputies in the Great Kremlin Palace on Thursday morning, he denounced legislators as subversive reactionaries and called for a referendum to decide once and for all who should rule Russia. 'It has become impossible to continue to work with such a Congress,' he thundered. 'A critical, decisive moment has come.'

The final straw had been the result of a secret ballot the day before on the future of Yegor Gaidar, the 36-year-old economist who has spent the last year demolishing Russia's planned economy. Though already serving as acting prime minister, Mr Gaidar needed to secure the backing of 521 deputies to be confirmed in his post. He fell 54 votes short.

Mr Yeltsin was furious. 'The Congress has launched a massive attack on the course followed by the President and the government . . . What they failed to do in August 1991 they have decided to reapeat now through a creeping coup,' he declared to jeers from the floor. Leading the attack, he said, was the Congress Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, an erstwhile ally turned bitter adversary. The only way out, said Mr Yeltsin, was a referendum to get rid of Congress: 'There is only one judge above the Congress and the President - the people.'

Then, for perhaps the first time, Mr Yeltsin flinched. Aides whispered that he had gone too far; opinion polls suggested he might not be able to convert his own popularity - shrinking but still substantial - into a referendum victory. Back-room negotiation replaced public confrontation. Yesterday afternoon, Mr Yeltsin was back in the Great Kremlin Palace, silent and sullen behind a desk at the back of the podium. This time he had come not to denounce Congress but to shake hands with Mr Khasbulatov - a moment of humiliation broadcast live on television - and declare their feud over.

After two days of talks refereed by the head of Russia's Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin, a settlement had been reached. Mr Yeltsin had backed down on virtually every issue. He will call off plans to dissolve Congress through a plebiscite, though a vote will be held in April on the form of a new constitution; he will abandon his insistence that only Yegor Gaidar can serve as prime minister. Instead, he will submit several other candidates too.

What happened? Mr Yeltsin could easily have secured a far less compromising fudge days ago, as Mr Gaidar, the man who triggered the showdown, had suggested from the start. Mr Yeltsin, though, despises uncertainty. His entire career has revolved around stark choices and moments of daring bravado.

Strung together in an autobiography, Against the Grain, his tales of derring-do read like a comic book: how he stopped a crane from collapsing dressed only in his underpants; how he faced down a burly workman who threatened to smash his skull open with an axe. But, tested against the cringing hypocrisy and muddle of the Communist system, caricature became courage. Mr Yeltsin was never in any doubt about where the real issue lay.

And so it seemed again last week. For Mr Yeltsin, the struggle with Mr Khasbulatov was merely the continuation of battles past. Another coup was under way, and he had to act. But he had badly misjudged his moment. No one believed him.

Courage had again lapsed back into caricature. Among the first to protest was Vice-President Alexander Rutskoi, another former ally who has drifted into opposition: 'It is time to end this slogan the government likes so much, 'Either us or communism',' he said. 'If we fail to meet each other half way we will push Russia to anarchy.'

The Congress is far from wholly democratic, elected in 1990 when the Communist Party was the only legal political body and all but 15 per cent of the winning candidates were members. It is still stacked with the very people who stand to lose most from Russia's shift towards the marketplace: state farm managers, provincial party hacks and factory managers still wedded to the Central Plan. But it is far from being just a reincarnation of the coup- plotters' State Emergency Committee. It has dragged its feet, done its best to sabotage land reform, privatisation and other key policies, and savaged Mr Gaidar and Mr Yeltsin daily. By far the biggest bloc of legislators, though, lies in the centre, anxious to relieve the pain of radical 'shock therapy' but just as anxious to avoid any return to Communist authoritarianism.

Despite all its baggage from the past, the Congress reflects rather than subverts a real debate going on across Russia about the best way forward. After all the fiery rhetoric of Thursday, Mr Yeltsin has now been forced to the same conclusion. He has sacrificed one of his closest aides, Gennady Burbulis, abandoned attempts to get the Congress dissolved and left Yegor Gaidar's fate even less certain than before. Perhaps this is how he intended it all along: a cunning tactical manoeuvre to unsettle and expose his most dangerous enemies. It is more likely, though, that Mr Yeltsin, like his foes, remains stuck in the all-or-nothing habits of the past. 'Common sense has prevailed,' the centrist leader Nikolai Travkin said to cheers yesterday in the Kremlin. Mr Yeltsin looked on glumly. A man who risked being hit by a train, does not like to be told it would have made more sense to jump.

(Photograph omitted)