Leading Article: Yeltsin's dilemma

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'IT IS no longer possible to work with such a Congress,' said Boris Yeltsin, the Russian President, in his desperate speech yesterday. 'Congress is blocking reform . . . Congress is a bulwark of conservative forces and reaction . . . Not a single practical issue has been resolved in the interests of the Russian citizens . . . We are . . . being pushed toward a civil war.'

His desperation is understandable. The Congress of People's Deputies was elected in March 1990, when the Communist system was still largely intact. Mr Yeltsin was popularly elected in June 1991 in a wholly different context. It is true that in October 1991 the Congress gave him special powers to implement his radical reform programme, but since then it has had second thoughts. The result is deadlock, confusion and rampant inflation. Something has to be done.

Mr Yeltsin's solution is to call a referendum next month asking the people whom they trust, president or parliament. The Congress has responded by demanding presidential and parliamentary elections instead. The impasse must be resolved before any further progress can be made on reforms. The positions taken by the two sides indicate where they think their respective strengths lie. Mr Yeltsin retains a fair measure of personal popularity and might, therefore, win a straight vote of confidence in his leadership. His opponents, however, have been building party machines in the regions, often based on the old Communist apparatus, so that in parliamentary elections they might mobilise more votes.

The voters themselves are confused and discouraged. Broadly supportive of reform, they are impatient for results. Instead, they experience falling output and inflation at about 25 per cent a month. But this is less the result of reforms than of their derailment by the opposition, which has forced Mr Yeltsin to grant huge inflationary subsidies to old industries, destroying the monetary discipline that was at the heart of the programme. Mr Yeltsin has since made further concessions by giving parliament a veto over key appointments in order to save his reformist prime minister, Yegor Gaidar. Yesterday he said he regretted having done so because the opposition had not kept its side of the bargain.

A way out of the impasse is not easy to see. If he decrees a referendum, it might be blocked by the Supreme Soviet, or in the regions, where many authorities are still dominated by the old guard. If he tries to rule by decree, the same people could frustrate him. If he calls elections, he risks everything in what certainly would be a divisive and bitter campaign, although he might gain a chance to build up a political machine of his own.

If the outside world is to be of any help, it can do two things. First, it can back the reform programme with more generous aid and pledges of assistance than have been forthcoming so far. Second, it can indicate that it would not necessarily react with spasms of moral disapproval and withdrawals of aid if Mr Yeltsin found himself obliged to be somewhat economical with democracy in pursuit of a more democratic system. His record entitles him to some trust. The present system is not a representative democracy and needs to be changed. In a crisis as acute and dangerous as that now facing Russia, there can be excuses for suspending the rules of a system that is itself part of the problem.