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Between Power and Law

MIKHAIL Gorbachev said the experience of reforming Soviet politics was like "walking through a sea of gasoline." Certainly Boris Yeltsin can say that about his ongoing fight to keep Russia united at a time when there is little agreement in Moscow or the countryside about what institutions hold power. Mr. Yeltsin survived a referendum on March 20 over his presidency and his direction of political and economic reform.

This week he won another crucial victory by lining up key political factions in an effort to create a new constitution.

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A new constitution to establish law and authority in a chaotic Russia is greatly needed. Without it, private ownership of land, the guaranteeing of contracts and regulation of trade, and the relationship of the restless Russian republics to Moscow cannot be established. A constitution would create a system of legislative bodies and allow parliamentary elections to take place.

Yeltsin and a constitutional assembly have met since June 5 but until this week could not agree among various drafts. What caused the recent rallying to Yeltsin's side is not clear. His own draft argues for a strong Russian presidency, strong powers for the regions, and a weak central government. To get widespread support and bypass his conservative parliament, Yeltsin may have promised a greater degree of sovereignty for the republics. If so, this is something of a gamble since it is the 88 various regi ons and republics that are increasingly taking authority into their own hands. Once power is given to them, it will not be easy for Yeltsin to get it back.

Even during what seems like a "good week" for Yeltsin - where he got an agreement with Ukraine over splitting the Soviet Black Sea Fleet - the situation in Russia is not so stable. Washington can cheer Yeltsin on. But it can do little about the diminishing obedience to central authority. Power is devolving to regional councils - in politics, economics, and among local police. Serious decrees from Moscow are constantly ignored.

The oft-asked question in the West, Can Yeltsin hold on?, may be increasingly irrelevant. Yeltsin may stay in office but not in power.

A constitution still faces significant obstacles. Yeltsin needs a way to ratify it.

The Congress of People's Deputies probably won't, so a referendum may be needed. And the relationship of Moscow to the regions and the thorny question of the rights of non-Russians remain unclear.

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