Leading Article: The risks ahead for Mr Yeltsin

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The Independent Online
THE TIDE of battle is turning in Russia, but not necessarily in a direction conducive to the interests of democracy. Having been pinned against the ropes for more than a year, Boris Yeltsin is fighting back, the smell of vengeance in his nostrils. Heartened by his victory in the April referendum, he is seeking to knock his opponents out of the ring. On Tuesday he delivered his biggest punches yet and dismissed two prominent conservatives: Yuri Skokov, head of the secretive and powerful Security Council, and Georgy Khizha, a representative of Russia's military-industrial complex.

Western governments, watching from the ringside, will no doubt applaud the removal of men who appeared to embody the opposition to Mr Yeltsin's generally pro-Western foreign policy and his well-intentioned, if poorly executed, market reforms. Yet the West needs to ask itself whether the Russian president, draped in the cloth of victory, intends to establish a genuinely democratic order, or an authoritarian system tailored to his short-term political needs.

Mr Yeltsin decreed yesterday that a special assembly should meet on 5 June to proclaim a new Russian constitution. Few will shed tears for the passing of the old constitution, which dates from the Soviet era and has bolstered the powers of the hidebound, slothful majority in the Congress of People's Deputies. Yet those who sympathise with Mr Yeltsin would do well to study closely the proposed new document. It envisages a bicameral legislature, the lower chamber of which is to be elected on a proportional basis, while the upper chamber will group the leaders of Russia's republics and the heads of its regional councils. The latter, who form the overwhelming majority, are to be appointed by the president and can be dismissed at his whim. The legislature will have the right to approve his choice of prime minister, but all other ministers will be appointed by the president in consultation with the upper chamber. Since this will consist largely of his appointees, it is likely to have little real influence over the government. Moreover, only the upper chamber will be entitled to impeach the president, and there will be no vice- presidency.

In deciding to abolish the latter post, Mr Yeltsin was clearly swayed by resentment that the current vice-president, Alexander Rutskoi, has been not merely a scathing critic of his policies but also the only politician capable of matching his popularity with the Russian people. Yet in itself this is no reason to do away with the job, still less to devise parallel constitutional arrangements that, far from emulating the American or French presidential models, actually owe a great deal to the Russian tradition of arbitrary rule from the centre.

In each momentous period of Russian change, from Peter the Great to Mikhail Gorbachev, the question has always arisen: can any leader reform Russia without enforcing his policies in a manner that ultimately undermines reform itself? Mr Yeltsin must not imperil his status as the legitimately elected leader of the Russian people by falling into the trap that has snared his predecessors.