Leading Article: Mr Yelstin in search of allies

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AS BORIS YELTSIN surveys the opportunities and dangers ahead, he may feel that the allies he needs most are not the committed reformers and the armed forces, but the opportunists - that vast mass of minor officials and managers across the country who are primarily interested in securing their own futures. For as long as the power struggle in Moscow remained undecided they hesitated, dragged their feet and kept their options open, hoping or fearing that the political wind would change. If they can now be brought to feel that Mr Yeltsin and his friends are well and truly in power they may calculate that prudence, if nothing else, obliges them to become reformers. If so, Mr Yeltsin will be more than half-way towards persuading the administrative machine to work with him.

Unfortunately, these people know as well as he does that his opponents will have another chance if the December elections are fair, so some may still be tempted to wait. A powerful coalition of forces is ranged against Mr Yeltsin, consisting of cautious reformists, unreconstructed Communists, nationalists who resent the loss of empire, and many ordinary people for whom change is proving too fast and too painful. This coalition has money and organisation and can appeal to the deep anxiety that many Russians feel as their old system and its empire disintegrate. In a free election, with most parties fragmented and disorganised and no nationwide machine to fight for Mr Yeltsin's candidates, it could win enough to shape the next government, as a similar coalition has done in Poland.

So just how fair can Mr Yeltsin afford to be? He is not by nature or training a democrat. His working life has been spent making his way in an undemocratic system. Yet he is not a tyrant. His instincts are that of a populist authoritarian: a man who seeks a mandate to do what he wants, unhindered by too many checks and balances, but not a destroyer of institutions. In this respect he is in the more benign stream of Russia's autocratic traditions, nudged further towards democracy by his need for Western support.

He seems at the moment to envisage an election intended to give him strong - probably excessive - powers, but none that would be absolute. Greater danger will come if the election campaign looks like going badly for him. Then his Western friends may have to decide which is worse, the survival of a regime that is economical with democracy but whose heart is in the right place, or victory for democratically elected recidivists who are likely to fight even less fairly than he is, if given the chance.

Mr Yeltsin may be able to avoid this dilemma if he moves swiftly. His team is already issuing a stream of edicts to accelerate economic reform, improve prospects for foreign trade and encourage foreign investors. At the same time, lenders such as the World Bank are more than ever aware of the need to strengthen the social safety-net during the period of transition. If he can provide a sense of direction in Moscow, combined with visible attempts to curb crime and cushion the impact of reforms, he may be able to revive the popular support with which he started. That could persuade opportunists to go along with him.

In the meantime he faces other risks from having made himself a hostage of the armed forces. They are already exacting their price. They want no more talk of Poland joining Nato and are resisting further cuts under the treaty on conventional forces in Europe. More ominously, they are asserting Russia's right to police its periphery and protect Russian minorities. It is here that Mr Yeltsin could be dragged into difficulties that might undermine his reforms and Western support for them. Then it will be a bit late to remember that Lenin's supposedly temporary emergency measures of oppression lasted more than 70 years and became integral to the system.