Leading Article: Yeltsin seems to be ahead on points

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The Independent Online
BORIS YELTSIN seems to have won the latest round of his battle with the Congress of People's Deputies. The chances seem fair that his referendum seeking the support of the people for his presidency will take place next month. His task now is to regalvanise the reformist forces that rallied to him during and after the coup of August 1991.

On the outcome may hang the answer to the larger questions of whether the vast Russian Federation, with its 22 constituent parts and unevenly distributed natural resources and human population, will hold together; and whether Russia as a whole continues down the bumpy road to a more democratic and pluralistic society or reverts to the nationalist, authoritarian mode that characterised all but a few post-First World War years of its history.

Many of the outlying republics are bent on achieving independence from Moscow: the richer they are in natural resources, the less anxious they are to bow and pay taxes to the central government. They can see clearly enough that the struggle between the presidency and the parliament has at least temporarily weakened the centre. They will want to make the most of this opportunity to seize yet greater autonomy. If boycotting the referendum will serve their cause, they will try to ensure no polling takes place.

That may not be fatal to the overall turnout, since most of them are thinly populated. But it could fertilise the seeds of future conflict. One disaster scenario, already being conjured up in Moscow, is of the federation's descent into warring republics, Yugoslavia-style, fighting not only the central government for independence but each other over issues of borders and ethnic groupings.

The broader question of Russia's political evolution may hang on President Yeltsin's success in rallying his supporters, many of whom have become dispirited. With his referendum move, he has won time and delineated a clear target. Yesterday's ruling by the constitutional court in Moscow appears to have reduced the risk of an attempt at impeachment by Congress.

Yet even a clear-cut endorsement of his presidency in the projected referendum is unlikely to resolve the power struggle in Moscow - especially if he is prevented, as the constitutional court intends, from simultaneously seeking approval for a new constitution with a new, bi-cameral legislature. Only such a new order, establishing a workable balance of power between president and legislature, can lay the basis for political stability. But the present Congress, elected in the Soviet era under rules favouring Communist party members, is unlikely to hasten its own demise. Equally, the reformists would be taking a big risk in calling elections within the next 18 months, since they have neglected to form any party organisation.

The risk of an actual clash between supporters and opponents of President Yeltsin is, perhaps paradoxically, reduced by the likelihood of the armed services and KGB remaining divided and loath to be involved. What we are watching is a revolution that started with Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms and remains very much in progress. Everyone in the West will hope that the forces of reform will win through and that bloodshed will be avoided. For the moment, little is certain except that great historic forces are on the move in Russia; there is little that outsiders can do to shape them; but much hangs on the outcome.