Leading Article: Yeltsin stakes everything for Russia's survival

THIS ought to be the decisive moment in the Russian crisis, the historical turning point at which one side wins, paralysis ends and a new course is set. Historians may accord it that status. Today, however, it is difficult to make out through the fog of battle the outline of a simple resolution. Mr Yeltsin says he will go ahead with his referendum on 25 April and has stripped the legislature of its powers. Legislators say this is illegal and threaten to impeach him. He says they have no power to do so.

Thus the deadlock that has paralysed the country for more than a year remains unresolved. The conflict is, however, shifting from debate to action. Between now and 25 April, officials and local politicians down the line and out in the regions will have to decide whether to carry out the referendum. This will be the first test of Mr Yeltsin's authority. If a substantial number refuse, he will be fatally weakened. If a sufficient number agree, the power of decision then shifts to the voters.

Most of the local worthies will make their choice on the basis of which position is most likely to preserve their power and privilege. That is what a great deal of the struggle is about, and why so much of the legislature blocks Mr Yeltsin. Slower reforms leave more members of the old apparatus in their jobs for longer. But if the perception spreads that Mr Yeltsin is winning, it might be a better career move to jump quickly into his camp. Many provincial politicians will have sleepless nights.

If the people get the chance to vote, the outcome will be just as uncertain. Apathy is widespread, and Mr Yeltsin's popularity has fallen a long way from its peak after the abortive coup of August 1991. Opinion polls suggest that he still has more support than the legislature, but he needs a reasonably decisive result to swing the tide in his favour. He is therefore taking a huge leap into the dark. He may be encouraged by polls that find overwhelming admiration for Peter the Great. Although a tyrant, Peter was at least a Westerniser.

The simplest justification for what Mr Yeltsin is doing is that he has left himself with no alternative. He has made one compromise after another and allowed his authority to be whittled away. He was getting the blame not only for the inevitable disruption caused by the reforms, but also for the catastrophic inflation and hardship that are in large part the result of his reforms being blocked.

Western opinion must therefore strive to avoid simplifying the issues. This is not a struggle between a would-be dictator and a democratic parliament. Nor is it entirely between reform and regression. The lines of allegiance and ideology criss-cross in all directions. Mr Yeltsin at the moment represents the best hope of progress towards democracy and a market economy, even if he is now being somewhat economical with constitutionality. It is, however, his reformist policies, not his person, that should command Western support. If the two part company, some rethinking will be necessary. And if he falls, deeply worrying though this would be, his successor would not necessarily be evil incarnate. In no country is it unknown for opposition figures to change their views when facing the realities of responsibility. This is not to underestimate the depths of the crisis or the dangers that lie within it but merely to acknowledge its complexity.