Leading Article: Mr Yeltsin's next battle

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The Independent Online
AMONG the most enduring images of the attempted revolution in Moscow will be not only tanks pounding the parliament building but spectators lining up to watch. The mass demonstrations, excitement and engagement that traditionally accompany such moments of national destiny were conspicuously absent. People watched, or went shopping instead.

Tired, disillusioned and preoccupied with the daily struggle for survival, Russians seem to be experiencing an extreme version of the apoliticisation now common to most Western democracies. They are bored by the political squabbles that have paralysed government, tired of disorder, crime and hardship, and sceptical of being able change things. What they crave above all is order and a better standard of living.

For Boris Yeltsin, this mood is both good and bad news. It is better that the people should be passive than against him, and he can be reasonably sure that they will approve his use of force, since they will hope for an end to drift. Yet he needs a reasonable level of popular engagement if his reforms are to work and if he is to win an election. He can take heart from the popular support he has received in the past, but he cannot be confident that it will always be available in the future, particularly as he lacks a nationwide political party to mobilise it. Hardship will continue, and his opponents have the old networks of the Communist party at their disposal to exploit it.

Mr Yeltsin is, therefore, in no position to relax. Until yesterday he could blame parliament for blocking his reforms. Now he must deliver. Can he do so? He has gained moral credibility by hesitating for as long as possible before using force. Had he acted sooner, victory would have been cheaper and quicker, but at the price of undermining his democratic credentials. His opponents had to be seen to initiate violence.

Nevertheless, now that force has been used to settle a dispute, it becomes easier to legitimise next time. It has made him heavily dependent on the armed forces, at any rate until elections are held, and he may already have offered the army policy concessions in return for support. Much will also depend on what happens in the regions, where his authority is still patchy. Some regional authorities, seeing the firm hand applied in Moscow, will be readier to come into line. Nationwide television coverage of the Moscow battle will have tended to discourage emulation. But other regions will continue to go their own way.

Thus, although Mr Yeltsin has won an important battle, the struggle over Russia's future goes on. His most urgent task is to win a popular mandate so as to weaken his opponents, restore constitutionality and make it impossible for anyone to say that he owes his position to force. Bringing forward the elections due in December would curtail his opportunities to campaign and build up an organisation, but it would also shorten the period of uncertainty in which his opponents might be tempted to try again. While he is brooding on these matters, Western leaders should curb their public enthusiasm for Mr Yeltsin. It is liable to provoke the nationalist reactions that he is trying to resist.

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