One Year Later, Yeltsin Recharges as Foes Scheme
IT is one year to the day since Boris Yeltsin held a teacup in a rock-like grip to demonstrate the steadiness of his nerve as he warned, in a televised speech to the Russian people, that he was plunging them into what became a violent constitutional crisis.
Western observers, who equate President Yeltsin's survival with the survival of Russian democracy, wonder whether the tragic events that followed might happen again.
But despite their traditional love of political rumor and intrigue, Russian politicians and Muskovites have not placed this question at the top of the political agenda.
Last October, after Yeltsin overrode the Constitution to dissolve parliament, ``the country was on the brink of civil war. This autumn, no serious potential social explosions are visible,'' commented Ivan Rybkin, the moderate speaker of the State Duma (lower house of parliament), in the Rossiiskiye Vesti daily Sept. 17. ``I deeply believe there is no going back.''
True, Yeltsin's opponents held a closed meeting last week in Russia's Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad and called for early presidential elections, now scheduled for 1996. But the call lacked conviction, and they would not name publicly the presidential candidate whom they were backing.
``How they bore us,'' commented Otto Latsis in the Sept. 20 edition of Izvestiya, reflecting the general lack of concern among moderate forces about a potential opposition challenge.
``The [Kaliningrad] meeting was a little step toward a united opposition, and it is obvious that [former Vice President Alexander] Rutskoi is candidate No. 1,'' said Oleg Rumantsyev, a former Yeltsin aide who sided with the hard-line rebels last October. Mr. Rutskoi spent four months in jail for leading the armed uprising against Yeltsin before the new parliament declared an amnesty for him and other Yeltsin foes.
While Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov attended the meeting, ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who has already begun his own presidential campaign, stayed away.
Yeltsin himself has yet to announce whether he will run for president. But presidential aide Vyacheslav Kostikov hinted on Sept. 16 that Yeltsin would be a candidate, saying democrats had good grounds for ``betting on B. Yeltsin in 1996.''
Apparently unruffled by the opposition antics, the Russian president enjoyed an extended holiday in the balmy Black Sea resort of Sochi last month, recharging his batteries for a diplomatic swing that will take him from London to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, to a Washington summit with President Clinton, and then to Kiev.
A year ago, such an extended absence from Moscow would have been inconceivable.
On Sept. 21, 1993, Yeltsin calmly told the nation that he had issued Decree 1,400, effectively dissolving the Soviet-era parliament that had been blocking his reform policies.
He later ordered loyal Russian Army units to fire on the parliamentary White House, eventually forcing his most vociferous opponents, including Rutskoi and parliamentary speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, to surrender.
Mr. Khasbulatov, now active in his native Chechnya, was the only leading October rebel not to attend the Kaliningrad meeting. But while the faces may have stayed the same, the political climate in which they are operating has changed.
Russia's future looked very bleak those few days in October, when more than 140 people were killed in fighting between Yeltsin loyalists and parliament supporters.
But stability is now setting in. Yeltsin's new Constitution, which some have said gives him too much power over parliament, has allowed him to follow through with market reforms.
As a result, he has managed to slow runaway inflation, help foreign investment take off, and put about 70 percent of industrial potential in private hands.
But perhaps the most important evidence of stability is that the opposition has stuck to Yeltsin's April peace pact, in which members of most public, political, and social groups promised to avoid political violence. On Sept. 22, Yeltsin is expected to make a televised national address commemorating the October events, where he probably will stress reconciliation.
``Our main accomplishment is that civic peace has become a real fact of life, reflecting a radical change in the general political climate,'' Yeltsin aide Anatoly Krasikov said recently.
But reformer Sergei Blagovolin, a member of Yeltsin's presidential advisory council, warns that potential dangers still lurk in such a calm environment. ``Certain violent actions on the part of the implacable opposition could be repeated, for crisis is exactly what it needs,'' he says.
Indeed, the opposition may be counting on economic woes to worsen - and may use the opening of the Duma on Oct. 5 to vent their views. The Russian government will soon have to decide whether it is prepared to risk closing lossmaking companies and keeping up the painful anti-inflation fight in order to win a new $18 billion credit from the International Monetary Fund.
The opposition is planning a number of rallies this week and next to commemorate last October's events. Soldiers in Russia's Army, who came to Yeltsin's aid last year but have been hit since by painful budget cuts, are expected to attend. The Army high command, however, appears loyal to Yeltsin, providing a key buttress to his rule.
As last October's confrontation came to an end, a shell from a presidential T-72 tank stopped the clock on the parliamentary tower. One year later, many Russians are asking: Did it also stop the clock on the opposition's race for power?