Unfortunately for him, the existing constitution, which itself goes back to the Brezhnev era, clearly identifies Congress as the supreme power in the country; and a majority of its members opposes his programme of economic reforms intended to create a market economy. In a moment of astonishing tactical ineptitude, Mr Yeltsin even increased Congress's powers when it last met in December. Seeking to win approval for the retention of his acting prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, who was also the spearhead of his economic reforms, he ceded Congress the right to appoint four key ministers. But he did so without first securing the position of his prime minister, whom he was obliged to drop. He appears to have been no shrewder in the handling of his plan to seek a referendum on the question of who should rule Russia, president or Congress. Fortunately, his opponents may be united in wanting to trim Mr Yeltsin's powers and his usurpation of their own, but they have no coherent programme to offer.
Amid so much confusion, the key questions seem to be: what should Mr Yeltsin do, and how can the West best help him? The options seem to be to compromise with Congress, which looks difficult or impossible; to press ahead with some form of referendum, though he might lose, given popular disillusion with the fruits of reforms so far, and some republics within the Russian federation might refuse to take part; or to declare presidential rule while seeking to persuade the constitutional court to agree to parliamentary elections being brought forward from 1995 to next year.
The last option, if feasible, looks in many ways the most promising - with the important proviso that Mr Yeltsin must swiftly make good his failure to found a political party or movement that represents his ideas and ideals. Without such support he might do none too well. His opponents, by contrast, have been busy building party machines in the regions, generally based on the old Communist Party apparatus.
One of the most valuable forms of help that Mr Yeltsin could receive from the West would be advice and know-how specifically aimed at helping him and his followers to establish a reformist party. Without a grass- roots party, the president has no hope of transforming the reformist impetus into a cornerstone of a multi-party democracy.