Leading Article: The battle for Russia's heart

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BORIS YELTSIN has now had to defend his authority by force. He is morally in the clear since his opponents started the fighting and their constitutional arguments are weak, but he is entering new and dangerous territory. Everything depends on the loyalty of the army, not only in Moscow but throughout the country. If the army divides, civil war will be hard to avoid.

Meanwhile it is important to remember that the struggle to determine Russia's future will not be decided in days or weeks. We are witnessing not just a battle for power among a few men in Moscow but an extended process of convulsive historical change no less profound than that which followed the fall of the Tsar in 1917. There are least four levels to the drama.

The most conspicuous is the personal struggle between Mr Yeltsin and his parliamentary opponents. One level down from that is the clash of political principle between executive and legislature over the constitutionality of what Mr Yeltsin has done. This is an interesting and in part sincere debate, in which the parliamentarians have the weaker argument because they and the constitution lack democratic legitimacy.

The third level of the struggle is about job prospects in the new Russia. Mr Yeltsin's opponents are drawn from the elderly, the less skilled, less confident members of the old party apparatus who fear losing their privileges, and the managers and workers of heavy industrial dinosaurs that can survive only with subsidies from Moscow. They also find support from poorer regions that need subsidies to survive. Against them are ranged the more able and confident Russians, including former functionaries, who are tasting the fruits of free enterprise, joined by some of the richer regions that expect more autonomy under Mr Yeltsin than under his rivals.

On the fourth level, down in the shifting subsoil of Russian history, is the more ancient struggle between Westernisers and Slavophiles over the identity and destiny of Russia itself. Is it European, Asian or, as Hegel put it, 'an intermediate essence' between the two? Mr Yeltsin has aligned himself with the Westernisers while making some obeisance to the Slavophiles. Mr Rutskoi is not a traditional Slavophile but has largely joined hands with those who dislike becoming too dependent on the West, refuse to accept the independence of Ukraine and Belarus (seen as part of the Slav homeland) and in some cases want to recover the frontiers of the Soviet Union.

Russia's ambivalence towards Europe goes back centuries. It is unlikely to be resolved now. Mr Yeltsin cannot afford to ignore it because his opponents, no matter how irrationally, will be able to exploit the distress of the dispossessed with emotional appeals to Russian pride and distrust of the West, presenting themselves as defenders of a Russian identity that the modernisers are destroying. They cannot be wholly defeated by troops in Moscow, and the struggle between these inchoate interest groups and different traditions will continue. It is to be hoped that Mr Yeltsin and his modernisers will win the street battles, but the political opposition will continue. The promised elections in December, if allowed to take place, will not necessarily go Mr Yeltsin's way.