With Allies Like These . . .

Boris Yeltsin wants to send the message "Be my friend-or else." Declaring that his own vice president, Aleksandr Rutskoi, "is categorically not in agreement with [my] reforms," Yeltsin last week took away Rutskoi's sleek official Mercedes, stripped him of his agriculture portfolio and reduced his security detail from 20 men to three. Rutskoi quickly struck back, with a fiery speech to the Russian Parliament accusing pro-Yeltsin officials of colluding with organized crime to rob the motherland. Denying he had enjoyed special perks, the vice president indirectly accused Yeltsin: "I never asked for special castles with bulletproof windows, underground garages, indoor tennis courts and winter gardens," he said. "I'm probably being mistaken for someone else."

In the hothouse of Russian politics, the temperature has shot up again. This Sunday Russians are scheduled to vote on four questions, essentially choosing between the president and his parliamentary opponents, whom Rutskoi generally supports. Last week Yeltsin vowed to step down if he loses the vote on either of two questions: whether voters "trust" him and whether the Parliament should have to stand for early re-election (Yeltsin thinks it should). Yeltsin's resignation would make Rutskoi president. The vice president could also end up in power if the Parliament votes to remove Yeltsin-something they failed to do last month by only 72 votes. The daily paper Sevodnya was reporting last week that Rutskoi had already memorized the words to the presidential oath.

An Afghan war hero whom Yeltsin chose as a running mate in order to placate more conservative voters, Rutskoi has made no secret of his distaste for "shock therapy" economic reforms. The demons he reviles are common ones-inflation, unemployment, the disintegration of state authority-and he has no imaginative plans to combat them. But he is the second most popular figure in Russia, after Yeltsin, and has powerful friends in the disgruntled military and among factory managers. Rutskoi describes himself as a supporter of "liberal reforms and strong government." But his rhetoric is often nationalist in tone. Last week he called for support from people "who want to see their motherland a mighty and flourishing state rather than a raw-materials appendage of the West."

Rutskoi's political base is still shaky. His backers, a loose alliance of parties known as the Civic Union, have shown little discipline in the Parliament and would soon fall to squabbling among themselves if their chief ever came to power. But Yeltsin's base may be shakier still. He was hoping that the trial of the Soviet coup plotters, which opened in Moscow last week, would help remind voters what a hero their president once was. But one defendant's ill health forced the trial to close indefinitely after only two days. To protect his reforms, Yeltsin needs a crushing victory in the referendum. He is not likely to get it. With Parliament in hot pursuit, he'll have a hard enough time saving his own skin.