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NEWS ANALYSIS : For Russians, a Choice Between Two Powers


MOSCOW — Fighting for political survival, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin has gotten caught in a trap that has proven fatal to many others who have attempted to rule the world's largest country.

It's called "double power," the simultaneous existence of rival seats of government claiming legitimacy.

Such a blurring of authority gave Russia the false Dmitris and other pretenders to the old throne of Muscovy and the Bolshevik-led workers and peasants councils, or soviets, that swept away both the provisional government and the Constituent Assembly after the 1917 Russian Revolution.

And--supreme irony of fate--the doubling of institutions with competing claims on citizens' hearts was also exploited to the hilt by Russia's reborn democratic movement in 1991, with two monumental consequences: the demise of the Soviet Union and hoisting of a strapping Communist maverick named Boris N. Yeltsin to supreme power in the Kremlin.

Now Yeltsin, a democratically chosen president who wants to assume "special powers" so he can strengthen his political position by holding a nationwide referendum, is opposed by a cluster of other, no less legitimate institutions--the legislature in the first place, but also his own vice president and members of his entourage.

On Sunday night, Yeltsin's foes set the wheels in motion to force him out by impeachment.

The upshot is a case of classic double power--in Russian, dvoevlastie --with no clear outcome in sight and the vague possibility that once again in Russia's great and often-tragic history, issues of power and legality may be finally resolved by force.

"All speak in favor of the constitution and their allegiance to it, but everybody is interpreting it in their own way," Moscow Deputy Mikhail G. Arutyunov observed Sunday.

Opposition leader Viktor V. Aksyuchits, in a speech pushing for Yeltsin's impeachment, admitted to fellow deputies that even if Russia's Parliament does vote him out of office, Yeltsin will surely just ignore it--the supreme manifestation of double power.

As he battles to save his presidency, not yet 2 years old, and his concept of reform, and as the Supreme Soviet tries to oust Yeltsin for the sake of enforcing the letter of Russia's Soviet-era constitution and taking control of social and economic policy, each side is trying to line up the maximum number of institutions, cliques and power bases.

As of now, here is how the major players have lined up:

* Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi--A draft text of Yeltsin's Saturday decree proclaiming "special rule" leaked to the Interfax news agency showed that Yeltsin had been counting on his handpicked running mate to watch over the army, police and security organs in the weeks before the referendum. It may have been a fateful blunder.

For if he is impeached by Russia's supreme government authority, the Congress of People's Deputies, Yeltsin would be replaced by Rutskoi, a 46-year-old Afghan war hero with ties to moderate Communists and the Civic Union centrist opposition.

Speaking at Sunday's emergency session of the Supreme Soviet, Rutskoi denounced "pseudo-democrats" and economic reforms he said had proven to be a "minus" for the people. He defended Yeltsin's right to ask the people to vote in a referendum, but he rejected the "special rule" proclaimed by the president.

* The government--Probably the most influential arbiter of whom the armies of bureaucrats across Russia will finally decide to obey, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin held an emergency meeting Sunday and issued a statement of support for Yeltsin that it later had to revise to indicate that it was not unanimous and that it supported only "constitutional" actions by the president.

Yeltsin allies like Gleb Yakunin, a Russian Orthodox priest and member of the Supreme Soviet, claimed that the government is still on Yeltsin's side, but Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, the Supreme Soviet chairman, complained that the statement was "toothless, vague, noncommittal."

Meanwhile, Yeltsin's national security adviser, Yuri V. Skokov, told deputies that, like Rutskoi, he had refused to sign the Saturday ukase proclaiming "special rule."

* The Constitutional Court--Chairman Valery D. Zorkin, asserting that Yeltsin already has more power in some spheres than President Clinton, accused him of succumbing to the "Gorbachev effect" and coveting even more power. Speaking forthrightly against Yeltsin, Zorkin told the Supreme Soviet to loud applause that his 13-member court had unilaterally begun deliberations at 2:30 a.m. Sunday about whether Yeltsin's assumption of extraordinary powers violates Russia's constitution and is therefore legal grounds for impeachment.

* The legislature--Yeltsin's sworn enemy, the Supreme Soviet, geared up at its emergency session to bring him to book for declaring "special rule." He can expect no quarter there. As he closed Sunday's deliberations, Khasbulatov told the chamber that members were witnessing "the agony of a political regime."

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