What Yeltsin needs next is power: As the US offers aid to Russia, Michel Tatu argues that economic progress is impossible in a country that has become ungovernable

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The Independent Online
THERE are optimists who believe the situation in Russia is less catastrophic on the ground than it appears outside the country, and who even predict a Russian economic miracle on the German or Japanese models. Far more numerous, though, are the pessimists or, to be precise, the people who have become 'disillusioned' with Yeltsinism and incline, with good reason, to question it.

Their disillusionment is a natural reaction - and in proportion - to the universal euphoria that followed the fall of Communist regimes across Central Europe. Among the questions they ask are these: are the Russians, who so joyously crushed the oldest Leninist system in the world, totally incapable of governing themselves? Will they repeat the sad experience of 1917, when their democratic revolution was snatched from their grasp? Are they doomed to keep their Communist ways for the foreseeable future?

For now, the answer to all these questions must, alas, be a resounding yes. The long psychological drama that has been played out between the president and his parliament serves to demonstrate, to an absurd degree, just how incapable the Russians are of governing themselves and how determined they are never to obey anyone again.

One consequence is that Communism is enjoying something of a revival. Some of the old language is returning. At the recent congress, deputies even started calling each other 'comrade'. And Boris Yeltsin's supporters are right to detect in the Congress deputies' slogan 'all power to the soviets' (a reference to the first Bolsheviks in opposition) echoes of an impotent government and emasculated popular assemblies. Did not Lenin accuse Kerensky, the ill-fated head of the provisional government, of wanting to install a dictatorship?

The last years of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika offer another sad precedent. At the top was Gorbachevism, an equivocating and contested presidential power. Further down, the empire was breaking up. Then, as now, one of the arguments against holding a referendum was that it could be opposed or boycotted by some republics and so accelerate the centrifugal process. Further down still was the economy in unstoppable decline. This did not begin with Mr Yeltsin, nor even with Mr Gorbachev, but inflation is now accelerating the process.

Since the 1991 coup, the 'chicken and egg' question - whether politics or the economy should be reformed first - has not arisen. In theory, Mr Gorbachev had a chance to reform the economy before starting on the political system. He did not do that, and this 'Chinese way' is no longer practicable, despite its many admirers in Russia, including in Mr Yeltsin's entourage. Today the political conflict eclipses all the others and everything else depends on how it is resolved, including economic reform.

How can 'reform' mean anything when the President's decrees are annulled by parliament and disregarded as soon as they are signed, when even the most basic discipline is lacking at all levels, and when a large part of production and Western aid is diverted into alternative channels? Having said that, Mr Yeltsin is no Kerensky or Gorbachev, not only because of his temperament, but because he holds more trump cards than they did.

When a president of a 'normal' democratic country comes into conflict with his parliament, informed opinion tends to support the legislature, judging it to be more 'democratic' than the executive. But Russia today is not a 'normal' democratic country. Its Brezhnevite constitution has been amended 320 times and has no consistency, and any notion of objective legality has been lost.

This, in fact, is to the president's advantage. He was elected when the old system still had a few months to run, but he had left the Communist Party a year before. From his point of view, the parliament was elected a year too soon; about 900 (of more than 1,000) deputies stood for election under the Communist Party banner. Mr Yeltsin missed the opportunity he had immediately after the 1991 coup to call new elections; now it is too late. Even the democrats are in no hurry to submit themselves for re- election and, after the impasse at the recent Congress, nothing short of a miracle will produce a negotiated settlement of the conflict.

Rumours of a military coup surface periodically. But a 'coup' could take one of two forms: it could be an anti- Yeltsin coup or a coup 'with Yeltsin', launched by him or with his knowledge.

If we are talking about the first sort of coup, the situation has changed a good deal since 1991. Without a Communist Party worthy of the name, only the army could instigate such a coup. But which generals and to what end? Mr Yeltsin, unlike his predecessor, has taken the precaution of entrusting the high command of the army and security forces to loyal men. General Pavel Grachev, the defence minister, is so much of a Yeltsinite that the conservatives have been calling for his dismissal. Of course, treachery cannot be ruled out, but one of the main reasons why the 1991 coup failed was the refusal of the troops to fire at the crowds. Nor does Russia have any tradition of coups. Starting with the failure of General Kornilov in 1917, all similar undertakings have miscarried.

It is also doubtful whether a military government would be able to hold sway over the whole country, even if it had the support of a majority in parliament. Instead of restoring order, there is every chance that it would have the opposite effect, precipitating armed confrontation between garrisons and regions.

There is no more guarantee that a military coup launched in the name of the president, a sort of lawful coup d'etat, would have any greater success, but its chances are a bit more credible. Such a coup could go wrong if Muscovites mobilised themselves in support of parliament as they did in 1991, but Mr Yeltsin was a central figure then and parliament now represents the past.

The device of a 'state of emergency' could enable the president to calm the situation, making more extreme measures unnecessary. Using the full powers at his disposal, he could restore enough order to hold elections and pass a constitution by a specified deadline. He would then be able to start afresh.

For the time being neither Mr Yeltsin nor his supporters in the military want to take this course. But if everyone - with the apparent exception of parliament - realises that flawed compromises are the worst possible solution, they could change their minds.

For the West there is a continuing paradox: our traditions incline us to prefer peaceful solutions and 'constitutional' ones - by which we mean observance of the status quo. But there is no purpose in maintaining a status quo that drives Russia daily closer to anarchy and makes nonsense of all the outside help sent for economic development.

At the same time, the Western leaders who most want to increase that help ought to push the hardest for a strong power in Moscow - for a legal coup d'etat. The dilemma is colossal.

The author is a senior political commentator at 'Le Monde'.

Copyright 'Le Monde'.

(Photograph omitted)