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Yeltsin Must Now Address Russia's Real Problem : Politics: Gridlock gripped the Moscow government until the president's action last week. Now he has the ability to do something about the economy.

September 26, 1993|Walter Russell Mead | Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" (Houghton Mifflin). He is now working on a book about U.S. foreign policy for the Twentieth Century Fund

IRKUTSK, RUSSIA — "Cheating, lying, prostitution-- That's the Boris Constitution."

This was one of the slogans in the only public demonstration of this Siberian city in response to the headlines from Moscow last week. Old Communists and new Serb-style Russian nationalists formed a united front to support the Russian Parliament and Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi.

Emotions rose high as speaker after speaker denounced President Boris N. Yeltsin for permitting the breakup of the Soviet Union and for turning the country over to gangsters, foreigners, Jews and other such scum. Bitter protesters surrounded Western observers at the rally, screaming in rage at the collapse of all things Soviet. Women pointed to their worn-out shoes, their threadbare coats and shouted that Yeltsin had reduced them to poverty. Bemedalled veterans of the Great Patriotic War--as Russians call their epic struggle against Adolf Hitler--bitterly denounced the economic and political changes that have destroyed the only world they knew. Their once-generous pensions are now too small to live on; the younger generation is more interested in Madonna than in the war against German fascism.

But for all the rage, the demonstration flopped. Except for a handful of young ultranationalists in black shirts (a sign of mourning, said a spokesman, for Russia's weakness), it was an old crowd of Communist die-hards. Now in their 70s and 80s, these people once cheered Josef Stalin and supported--even assisted in--his crimes. Cruel and hateful as ever, they can no longer do harm. Like communism itself, they are headed for the graveyard. God will judge them in the next world; they have nothing more to do here on Earth.

The communists and their allies are losing their grip here. Yeltsin's "constitutional coup," in effect, abolished their last political stronghold, the Russian Parliament, elected back when the Communist Party of the Soviet Union still ruled.

Russian politics has been trapped in gridlock since Yeltsin rose to power. On one hand, pro-Western democrats, businessmen and others are trying to build a civilized state on the ruins of the old Soviet system. On the other, entrenched special interests want to preserve the institutions, if not the ideology, of the old Soviet state. Up until now, Yeltsin was unable to destroy his enemies, and they were unable to destroy him.

The result was the system of organized chaos that Russians call "dual power." Parliament and the president issued contradictory decrees; they canceled each other's orders and spent more energy on fighting than running the country.

But while gridlock persisted at the top, the situation at the grass roots was changing. Privatization and the growth of new business strengthened the forces for change. The old communist political machine slowly fell into decay. Revelations about the crimes of communism deepened popular revulsion against the former rulers. The prestige of the West increased as more people learned about the higher living standards in the capitalist world.

Yeltsin is now making his move against dual power. This is a popular move--Russians are sick of gridlock. Everyone here agrees on one thing: Russia needs a central government that speaks with one voice.

The pattern in Irkutsk seems to be holding throughout the country. The communists are ranting in the streets; the democrats are ruling in the suites. Although even Yeltsin's allies agree that his latest moves are unconstitutional, people here agree that the Russian constitution is an unworkable holdover from the Soviet past. Yeltsin's new powers--at least on paper--are dictatorial; it is a measure of his political shrewdness that democrats in Russia and in the West continue to support him.

Western support for Yeltsin has been important. Pro-Yeltsin television broadcasts prominently trumpeted statements supporting the Russian president from Western nations.

U.S. support has been particularly important--behind the scenes as well as in public statements. Hours before the latest crisis erupted in Moscow, a high-ranking U.S. military delegation stopped off in this remote Siberian city as part of a national tour. In Vladivostok last week, U.S. and Russian naval officers and politicians toasted one another while Russian and U.S. sailors swapped souvenirs and chased young women in the streets of this once-closed Russian port. The rising U.S. influence in Russia--a largely unheralded achievement of the Clinton Administration--is clearly a factor in the growing strength of democratic forces.

But if Yeltsin seems--finally--to have his communist opponents on the run, his most powerful enemy remains as strong as ever: the economic depression now gripping Russia.

Yeltsin's political success against the opposition last week deprived him of any excuse for economic failure. The entrenched opposition in the Russian Parliament can no longer block his reforms. It is up to him--and to the Western allies who have staked so much political capital on his success--to make the most of this opportunity. If Yeltsin fails, the opposition will revive. Not the old communist dinosaurs with their shabby suits and their tattered red flags, but the boys in black shirts: the anti-Western, anti-democratic ultranationalists who link Yeltsin with an international Jewish plot against the Russian people.

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