In a Foxhole on Chechnya, Yeltsin Stands His Ground
But the Russian president is staying in power at democracy's expense
DESPITE widespread concern over whether Boris Yeltsin is still in control of Russia, it appears likely that the Russian leader will remain in power at least until his presidential term expires in June 1996.
President Yeltsin, once perceived as the primary guarantor of Russian democracy, has met with sharp criticism both at home and abroad over his indiscriminate use of force in resolving Chechnya's independence bid.
But even as allegations mount of Kremlin mismanagement and military bungling, the possibility that he could be impeached, forced to resign, or ousted in a military coup seems unlikely, according to many Western and Russian analysts.
What is clear, however, is that Russia is veering off on a path far more authoritarian than most proponents of its market-reform programs would have predicted just one month ago.
The current situation ``poses a danger to Russian democracy and its market economy,'' says former acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, who has emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of Yeltsin's policy in Chechnya.
``We are facing long-term partisan warfare, increasing powers of the military and police, and a very serious undermining of human rights,'' he said in an interview yesterday.
Some politicians accuse the Russian president of having already lost his grip on power, saying he has subordinated his better judgment to the opinions of his hard-line inner circle.
But others scoff at the idea, saying that even the possibility of Yeltsin being forced to resign or ousted by an already divided military appears remote.
``I sincerely doubt that the military will be able to seize power. Yeltsin still has a strong chance to remain president until 1996,'' says former Soviet Defense Minister Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov in an interview.
``If the president finds an opportunity to have an impact on this process, he will even have a chance in future elections,'' adds Mr. Shaposhnikov. He replaced Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov after the failed hard-line coup against former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991.
Both Communists and liberal reformers have launched a concerted campaign against Yeltsin's decision to dispatch troops to Chechnya on Dec. 11, leaving ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats as the only large parliamentary faction to support the president's hard-line policy.
But the opposition against Yeltsin in the State Duma, or more powerful lower house of parliament, is still too divided to act in a way that would influence Yeltsin's future.
``There has been a new coalition of Duma factions since the beginning of the Chechen crisis, bringing oddball people together, Communists and reformists,'' says a Moscow-based Western diplomat. ``But I rather doubt they would get that singleness of purpose to call early elections and bring it all the way through with all the necessary constitutional amendments,'' he adds.
Russian reformists themselves admit they would have trouble replacing Yeltsin. ``Impeachment would be very difficult. We could find some democrats, but unfortunately they are not strong enough to win,'' says deputy Anatoly Shabad of the reformist Russia's Choice faction led by Mr. Gaidar. Mr. Shabad once strongly supported Yeltsin but now vehemently opposes him.
And although some deputies have managed to coalesce against Yeltsin, their newfound opposition is stymied by Yeltsin's new Constitution. Adopted in December 1993, it has been widely criticized for giving the president too much power at the expense of the parliament.
The new Constitution, which replaced the 1978 Russian document adopted under Leonid Brezhnev, significantly reduces parliament's ability to impeach the president. It allows for impeachment only with approval from the presidentially nominated Constitutional Court and two-thirds approval from both chambers of parliament.
A two-thirds majority ``seems impossible considering the makeup of the parliament today,'' says Galina Starovoitova, co-chair of the reformist Democratic Russia movement. ``Elections will take place on time [in 1996].''
But Lililya Shevtsova, an analyst at Moscow's Institute of International and Economic Political Studies, doubts that any new presidential elections will be held. ``There won't be any new elections at all. Chechnya has graphically demonstrated this.''
Vitaly Tretyakov, editor in chief of the influential Nezavisimaya Gazeta, warned recently that the entire political elite was expecting a coup dtat. The most probable figure to replace Yeltsin, he wrote, would be a more authoritarian Yeltsin II.
``Paradoxically, the most likely alternative to Yeltsin in the nearest future is the neo-Yeltsin, who constantly changes the positions of the pieces on his chessboard in order to keep both the queen and the piece threatening the queen in his hand,'' he wrote.
Some believe the question of Yeltsin's reelection is moot, however, saying the president may not survive politically until 1996. Continued aerial bombardment of Chechnya, despite Yeltsin's orders to halt the raids, has fueled speculation over whether the president has lost control of his armed forces, raising the specter of the world's second-largest nuclear power running amok.
But many diplomats believe Yeltsin is just playing a game, doing all he can to deflect responsibility for mistakes from his already beleaguered presidency.
``It's all guesswork. Generally, the situation in Russia is very unstable. It is very difficult to estimate the consequences of this war, and it is much more difficult now to predict anything in Russia, including in Russian politics,'' says Gaidar, the former acting prime minister.