Leading Article: Second chance for Yeltsin

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The good news is that Boris Yeltsin has achieved a remarkable moral victory in the Russian referendum - if early indications are confirmed. It is difficult to imagine a political leader in any other part of the world winning such a vote of confidence after a year of economic decline, political turmoil, rising unemployment and almost daily prophecies of total collapse. The Russian people have rightly decided to blame their troubles more on the recalcitrant legislature than on Mr Yeltsin himself.

The bad news is that Mr Yeltsin's struggle with parliament is not yet over. He has won the battle, but not the war. His opponents have made it clear that they will find almost any reason to contest the result. They are already pointing out that he failed to win a majority of the electorate (as distinct from votes cast) for new parliamentary elections, which was the absurd threshold stipulated by the Constitutional Court. In constitutional terms, nothing has been resolved.

There can be no doubt, however, that such a solid vote of popular support will enhance his authority and strengthen his self-confidence. It shows that the decline in his poll ratings reflected dissatisfaction rather than outright rejection. On the issue of democratic legitimacy, he has won hands down over parliament. The results demonstrate that more people want a new parliament than a new president. This is good news, not least for the West. It increases the chances of successful reform, and decreases the danger of confrontation over Serbia.

Mr Yeltsin must now translate this moral victory into political progress. The task will not be easy. He will be helped by waverers and doubters shifting towards him, calculating that he is on the rise. For the same reason, the armed forces and the KGB are now less likely to turn against him. But unless he can push through his new constitution and hold elections, he will continue to be blocked by the existing parliament, which will not easily be persuaded to commit political suicide.

If he prevails he must then find ways of making his writ run across the country. The old lines of command that ran through the Communist Party to the regions have vanished. Many regions are going their own way, withholding tax revenues and resources and 'privatising' industries into the hands of the old apparatchiki, who then make common cause with workers for subsidies and indexed wages. Bashkortostan has even voted for outright independence. Throughout the country, too, organised crime is undermining reforms by destroying new businesses, corrupting the police and alienating the population. Inflation is a gift to the criminals because it enhances the value of bribes in kind or foreign currency.

This makes it doubly important that Mr Yeltsin should quickly gain control of the Central Bank, which is largely responsible for the fact that inflation was practically out of control by the end of last year. No reforms will work without control of the money supply; nor will Western institutions provide the credits and guarantees they have promised. The referendum has provided Mr Yeltsin with the chance to make a new start. May he do better than he has done so far.