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Next Step : Russia: The Fight for the Kremlin : What now, Boris? The mercurial president has cast out his last excuse for failures: Parliament.

September 28, 1993|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Now Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin has no more excuses.

When he was cast out of the Politburo into political darkness to emerge later as the star of Russia's pro-democracy movement, Yeltsin blamed Mikhail S. Gorbachev and the corrupt and oppressive Soviet system itself for his country's deepening troubles. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin complained that the Soviet-era Parliament, dominated by unrepentant Communists and neo-nationalists, was systematically sabotaging his program of reform.

Last week, in an admittedly unconstitutional gamble, Yeltsin dissolved the Parliament and called for new elections in December, thus shattering the last remaining institution of Soviet power.

In doing so, Russia's first freely elected president in its 1,000-year history takes on a challenge of epic proportions. Yeltsin must try to build democratic institutions on Russia's scorched and exhausted political earth. At the same time, he must push ahead with free-market economic reforms that will cause real pain for the majority of Russians, thus inviting political backlash.

If Yeltsin fails--to get a new legislature he can work with, to check Russia's plummeting standard of living and to keep the fractious regions from winning so much autonomy that central authority collapses--he will have to shoulder most of the blame himself.

It now seems inevitable that Russia will hold both early parliamentary and early presidential elections, as Yeltsin demanded. The only question is the timing, who will win and whether the autocratic Yeltsin and his uncompromising foes will learn from their mistakes.

Even under the best of circumstances, Russia must still tame triple-digit inflation and rampant corruption, mass unemployment and a plunging standard of living. The President must also create brand new legal and financial systems before economic redevelopment can begin in earnest.

Yeltsin remains hugely popular. Sixty-two percent of 600 Russians queried in one survey last week supported his decision to dissolve Parliament, and only 14.5% opposed it.

The president also benefits from an enduring Russian tradition of blaming the bureaucracy--not the beloved czar--for the nation's woes.

"The myth was that the czar simply didn't know that his people were starving," said Boris Morozov, an emigre scholar at Tel Aviv University. "It was just that he had bad advisers." Russians still have this monarchistic streak, he said.

Yeltsin's immediate task is to get a government--and a legislature--that will let him do at least some of what he wants.

He made progress on the first front two weeks ago by sidelining his conservative economics minister, Oleg I. Lobov, and bringing back ousted Prime Minister Yegor T. Gaidar, the architect of his "shock therapy" reforms.

Gaidar has said that the reformers' primary task is to ensure that Russia's first post-Communist parliamentary election does not produce a hostile legislature of ex-Communists, nationalists and populists who will attempt to blunt--if not block--economic reform.

Though his foes demand simultaneous elections, Yeltsin insists he will not compromise. He has decreed parliamentary elections for Dec. 11-12--a schedule that leaves little time for either side to organize. He also has announced presidential elections for next June 12--two years earlier than scheduled.

Although Russia has parliamentary factions galore, its political parties are still in the formative stages. Russian intellectuals are well acquainted with the idea of a national political organization capable of recruiting like-minded candidates in local regions, giving them money and support and helping them identify and then turn out their voters on election day. But they've had little experience in putting these ideas to work. "Grass-roots politics does not come naturally there," said Harvard University economist Jeffrey Sachs, a Yeltsin government adviser in a telephone interview from Cambridge, Mass.

"For the reformers to have a good Parliament, they're going to have to work at it--and I can't say that we have strong evidence that they're going to be organized and ready to do that," Sachs said.

Pollster Grigory A. Pashkov worries not about a "red-brown coalition" of Communists and fascists but about a brand-new Parliament of amateurs who will have to learn politics and lawmaking from scratch.

"The lawmakers will be worse than they are now," Pashkov predicted glumly. "They will be completely unprepared. We are destroying the old political elite faster than we create a new one."

Many analysts expect a new legislature as diverse, as fractious, as hard to govern as Russia herself.

"There are dozens of parties and about 100 regions and 100 nationalities in Russia," said Alexander I. Pikayev of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, a Moscow think tank. "It would be very difficult to transform this very diverse Parliament into a rubber-stamp."

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