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The Risks of Yeltsin's Crackdown

As the Russian leader visits Japan, analysts assert his harsh moves will deepen divisions

EAGER to show that he is in full control of the political situation in Moscow, Russian President Boris Yeltsin arrived in Tokyo yesterday beginning a three-day visit to Japan.

Before his departure, Mr. Yeltsin rushed to crush the last vestiges of the communist totalitarian system, but some analysts say his crackdown will only deepen divisions here and increase the likelihood of further political violence.

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Since the defeat of a neo-Communist and ultranationalist rebellion Oct. 4, Mr. Yeltsin has assumed near-dictatorial powers. In recent days, he has extended to next Sunday Moscow's state of emergency, which had been due to expire Oct. 10; suspended the Constitutional Court, the nation's top judicial body; and decreed the dissolution of local soviets, or councils, holdover legislative institutions from the Communist era. (The battle in Russia's regions, Page 2.)

The administration also has banned the Russian Communist Party (RCP), along with the more centrist People's Party of Free Russia, headed by politician Vasily Lipitsky. The two parties were added to a list of extremist political organizations that had already been banned from participating in December parliamentary elections.

Some political observers say that the Russian president's actions could bring the opposite of what he intends. Instead of stabilizing Russia, Yeltsin may be heightening tensions by pushing the opposition underground.

``In coming years, there will be purely terrorist, vengeful organizations emerging in the country,'' says Dmitry Ostalsky, editor-in-chief of the liberal Segodnya newspaper. ``The more legal the activity of the opposition, the easier it would be to control dangerous developments.''

Meanwhile, Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the banned RCP, warned that if the president continues with strong-arm tactics, they will backfire. ``If Russia goes down the use-of-force path in order to solve political problems, then a civil war will be inevitable,'' he suggests.

One of the reasons for Yeltsin's get-tough actions is to erase the images of government indecisiveness and the wavering of military and security forces during the failed rebellion, some political analysts, such as Ostalsky, say.

The government has been stung by eyewitness reports that the Kremlin was in disarray during the early stages of the rebellion, and that Yeltsin failed to lead. The military and security forces also have been criticized for initially losing control of the situation on Oct. 3, and then hesitating before crushing the rebellion.

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In recent days, leading government figures, such as Interior Minister Viktor Yerin and Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, have shrilly defended their actions. Mr. Yerin has admitted that Interior Ministry forces were unprepared to handle the demonstrations leading to the Oct. 3 uprising, but insisted his troops at no time lost control of the streets. General Grachev, meanwhile, told the Moscovsky Komsomolets newspaper that ``there was no confusion in the Kremlin. The president quite resolutely took command.''

Those accounts, however, were contradicted by Deputy Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, who said that at one point on Oct. 3 the situation was so uncertain that the government considered distributing arms to civilian supporters, who had gathered outside the Moscow City Council building. In addition, Yeltsin never appeared on television Oct. 3 to address the nation.

Although there has been little outright resistance so far to Yeltsin's moves to smash the old system, he may have a difficult time implementing his agenda. It is unclear what means he has at his disposal to compel reluctant regions to obey his edicts.

Some regions, especially several autonomous republics, appear ready to resist his plans to dissolve town and city councils. For example, Kaadyr Ool Bicheldei, legislative leader in the Tuva autonomous republic, described the attempt to abolish local councils as ``dangerous'' for the legislative branch of government, the Interfax news agency reported.

With two months to go until the planned elections, election officials are still drawing electoral districts and establishing voting rules. It would appear, however, that election procedures will favor pro-Yeltsin political organizations, to the disadvantage of autonomous republics. That could further alienate some autonomous regions.

Yeltsin's ban of political parties, such as the RCP, could greatly influence the election. Under the planned voting rules, half the seats in the new 450-member legislature will be drawn from lists of political parties. The RCP had been the most organized political movement in Russia and its removal creates move favorable conditions for pro-Yeltsin organizations.

The Russian Orthodox Church, an institution largely unblemished by the Moscow events, has issued a mild warning to Yeltsin to show restraint.

``If the country's rulers give in to the temptation to persecute those who are weaker than they, they will ruin themselves and the people,'' a church statement said. ``Neither reform, nor any, even the most perfect laws, can help us if people's souls continue to have nothing but sin.''

In the midst of it all, Yeltsin is in Japan. ``He has to show his position is stable,'' said Vladimir Ovsyannikov, former Tokyo correspondent for the New Times weekly. ``At the same time it is very dangerous for him to leave the country.''

Russian-Japanese relations have been stalled over the question of possession of four islands in the Kurile chain, occupied by Russia but claimed by Japan. Yeltsin risks angering a large segment of society that feels a deep sense of Russian nationalism if he makes a deal on the islands while in Tokyo.

* Monitor research assistant Andrei Zolotov contributed to this report.

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