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Yeltsin Takes Control of Volatile Russia

Column by Daniel Stevenson

In a series of sudden, drastic maneuvers last week, Russian President Boris Yeltsin assumed direct presidential rule by decree and provoked a dangerous conflict with the Russian Parliament. Accusations, insults, and threats have characterized both sides of the power struggle, with armed intervention looming in the near future. The major democratic world powers were quick to endorse Yeltsin's actions, citing the fact that Yeltsin is the first democratically elected leader in the region, a condition reinforced by his victory in a national referendum in April. Yeltsin has also received support from many of the former Soviet republics, and so far the ministers of the three most important departments -- defense, security, and interior -- are also supporting his actions.

Yeltsin's side seems to be winning the struggle for control, with hundreds of deputies deserting parliament. One disgruntled deputy lamented that parliament's opposition to Yeltsin's unconstitutional actions is "for the history books, to show we did the right thing." The question remains, however, if it is parliament or the president's supporters who are doing the right thing. As President Clinton said after a telephone call of support to Yeltsin, any action must be done "in a way that ensures peace, stability, and an open political process this autumn." The world community must remain cautious that the rights of the Russian people are preserved and that the country's powerful nuclear arsenal does not fall into dangerous hands.

It is encouraging to note that Yeltsin has promised both parliamentary and presidential elections in the near future as insurance against any kind of despotic rule. Rumors persist that Yeltsin might even agree with Constitutional Court Chairman Valery Zorkin that both sides should "sacrifice some of their ambitions and agree on simultaneous re-elections of president and parliament." The embattled president's plans for a bicameral legislature are also encouraging. His concept, modeled after the American system, would replace the Congress of People's Deputies, composed of many hold-overs from the Communist era. In another positive step, Yeltsin reappointed Yegor Gaidar, architect of many of Yeltsin's key economic reforms, to the cabinet after being dismissed during a compromise with parliament. With his return, the pace of economic reform will hopefully quicken, unhampered by government control and centralization advocates in the dissolved Parliament.

It is important to realize, however, that Yeltsin has also taken steps that could be dangerous if accepted as the status quo. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, during a visit to Italy, said, "What Yeltsin has done is an irresponsible and senseless response to the institutional crisis in Russia. He did not have the constitutional right to dissolve Parliament." Dissolution of legislative bodies is not to be taken lightly, nor is violation of a constitution. If, as the Yeltsin supporters claim, the means justify the ends, then some strong-armed act ion will probably take place. As Yeltsin said in a nationally televised address, "These measures [dissolution of Parliament, rule by decree] are necessary in order to protect Russia and the whole world against the catastrophic effects of the disintegration of Russian statehood, against the triumph of anarchy in a country with a huge nuclear arsenal." One sign of the threats on civil liberties by the current confrontation was the government-ordered shutdown of the newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta, a conservative paper financed by the dissolved Russian Parliament. The forced closing of a newspaper with over 800,000 subscribers is not a matter to be taken lightly, regardless of the urgency of the situation. In supporting Yeltsin in the power struggle he will almost certainly win, world leaders should place great emphasis on democratic elections and the preservation of basic civil liberties. This second Russian Revolution is similar in many respects to the American Revolution of 200 years ago. With strong, decisive, and careful action on the part of Boris Yeltsin, the outcome in Russia can be similarly successful. However, the smallest wrong turn could result in a situation more familiar to Russians, with revolution leading to a dictatorial regime and the repression of human rights.