On April 25, Russians vote in a referendum that asks them to say whether or not they like Boris Yeltsin, approve his economic policy and wish to have early presidential or parliamentary elections. Whatever the results, this poll will not resolve the battle between President and Parliament. The following observations on the ten days that depressed rather than shook the world are intended to throw light on the nature of that struggle.
You don’t cross the Rubicon, argued Andre Malraux, in order to sit down on the other side and fish in its waters. Yet this is exactly what Boris Yeltsin did. On March 20, he announced that until the upcoming plebiscite all parliamentary acts defying the President’s will would be null and void. Then, criticized by his Vice President, Aleksandr Rutskoi, by the secretary of his Security Council, Yuri Skokov, and by the Chairman of the Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin, he was forced to seek a compromise. One can explain this action w!th another maxim: You don’t stage an 18th Brumaire, a parliamentary putsch without the backing of the army. Yeltsin, when attacking Parliament, asked his Defense Minister, Gen. Pavel Grachev, to guarantee the neutrality of the armed forces, and even he could do so only with difficulty. This is why, on March 29, after a dramatic session of the Congress of People’s Deputies, the plebiscite was turned Into the referendum of April 25.
But why does the President get into fights for which he is clearly unprepared? Most people say that his entourage (described by the deputy Aman Tuleyev as the “collective Rasputin”) is behind it. Egged on by them to do battle, the pragmatic Yeltsin found himself in an awkward position from which he then had to extricate himself to survive.
Yet he is extremely faithful to his camarilla. At the end of last year, Yeltsin’s right-hand man, Gennady Burbulis, had to give up all his official positions, but he still has an office close to the President. Removed from the Press and Information Ministry, Mikhail Poltoranin was at once given even greater power over the media as head of a newly created Federal Information Center [see Andrew Yurkovsky, “Can Yeltsin Tame the Press?” March 22]. Indeed, Yeltsin has the infuriating habit of giving and taking back, of making a compromise and then reinterpreting it in his own fashion. Last December the deal clearly implied a change of government and of economic policy. The new Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, discovered that he had inherited the old team and must hew to the old line. A new clash between President and Parliament was thus inevitable.
Whatever its original meaning in ancient Rome, since its use by Napoleon III, the plebiscite has had a bad democratic reputation. It is an instrument used by would-be dictators to address the people above the heads of their elected representatives with a question designed to get a positive answer. Yeltsin’s insistence that he must determine the wording of the questions was a measure of how far his popularity must have slumped in the twenty months since the August putsch, as a result of the disastrous state of the economy. If President Clinton and company were so keen on a democratic solution, they could have picked the one suggested quite early by Ruslan Khasbulatov, Speaker of the Supreme Soviet, and a few others, namely early elections for both Parliament and President, a proposal that Yeltsin accepted only when faced with defeat and impeachment.