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Press On, Mr. Yeltsin

HOW good to see the Western democracies line up behind Russian President Boris Yeltsin in his historic attempt to throw out the old guard apparatchiks and hold new elections. He needs and deserves support. Mr. Yeltsin's act of dissolving the Russian parliament Tuesday is clearly extraconstitutional, as are the powers he will wield until December if he can pull the elections off. Hardliners in parliament are saying Yeltsin's rule is illegal, which is technically true. But their actions - impeaching Yeltsin, appointing Vice President Rutskoi as president - also are extraconstitutional.

Thankfully, Army leaders and key interior and security ministry leaders have stepped toward Yeltsin.

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One does not need to be a genius to understand who is who and what is what in the current showdown. Yeltsin is the only democratically elected leader in high office in Russia, a more liberal reformer who also won a referendum in April, a hero to his people, a man trying against heavy odds to establish a new constitution. This is ``reinventing government'' with the highest possible stakes, amid chaos.

On the other side is a hidebound parliament, elected under Soviet rule, opposed to elections, loaded with nationalists and hacks. One can argue that Yeltsin should have dissolved the body in April. He tried instead for a new constitution through more legal means. His last attempt, through the Federation Council he formed in June to bypass parliament, made up of regional leaders and oblast chiefs, failed on Saturday. Hence, he had no choice but to act, to step into the abyss. Abraham Lincoln, it may be remembered, acted beyond the constitution at times in the American Civil War. Yeltsin, in a sense, is acting to avoid a civil collapse in Russia.

What is missing most from the American discussion of Russia's turmoil is a recognition of the level and degree of disorder - not only in Moscow, but particularly in the regions. One cannot discuss Yeltsin's act without stressing the utter lack of authority at every level. A new parliament will not solve Russia's problems. But it will help. At the moment, the center is collapsing and various regional leaders (often parochial and provincial) are rising.

This raises a serious question: If elections are held in December, will all Russia's states participate? Not all may. If not, will Yeltsin, or the Army, intervene? In the meantime will Yeltsin, having taken history in his hands, press on? Is he set? Another compromise or delay could be ruinous.

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