Yeltsin Defiant

Boris Yeltsin hadn't looked so determined since he stood atop a tank during the attempted coup of August 1991. After a tense week of threats, hints and delays, the president finally counterattacked against the communist-dominated Parliament that had stripped him of most of his powers. In a crudely edited, taped address to the nation on Saturday night, Yeltsin took his troubles to the people. Though his delivery was awkward, his language was tough. Announcing "special rule," he grabbed power back from the Parliament until the people could decide in a referendum he called for on April 25. The referendum would include a vote on a new constitution, which would lead to new parliamentary elections-and, he hoped, disarm his opponents. "The absence of any authority," he warned, could lead to "chaos and to Russia's death." Vowing to prevent the old communists from regaining power, he declared: "Russia cannot stand another October Revolution."

But Yeltsin's challenge this time was far greater than a group of half-drunk, aging coup plotters. He faced an attack from the communist nomenklatura, which had stood up against the reforms that threatened to wipe out its powers. Within a few minutes of Yeltsin's speech, Valery Zorkin, chairman of Russia's Constitutional Court, whose decisions Yeltsin had attacked during his speech, called the president's move "an attempted coup d'etat." A coalition of powerful officials added its condemnation. Even some of his allies questioned the wisdom of such sweeping action. "It's a pity that Yeltsin couldn't find another way to protect power and democracy," said Anatoly Shabad, a liberal parliamentarian.

At stake was the future shape of government in Russia, and whoever won the immediate battle, the long-term prospects for democracy looked increasingly dim. Yeltsin may succeed in rallying the faithful, allowing him to replace the troublesome Parliament. But even many of his supporters are dubious about the effectiveness of a new battery of presidential decrees. Armed with broad powers in 1991 to issue decrees, Yeltsin found his edicts increasingly ignored. Asks Ludmila Saraskina, a commentator for Moscow News: "Can Yeltsin be strong enough to make presidential rule something other than an empty concept?"

Both sides in the power grab between Yeltsin and the Parliament portray the struggle as a fight between good and evil. The conservative deputies claim that they, though elected before the breakup of the Soviet Union, are the true democrats, threatened by the specter of a Yeltsin-led authoritarian crackdown. Ruslan Khasbulatov, the parliamentary speaker who has emerged as Yeltsin's chief adversary, warned of "manifestations of dictatorship." Not to be outdone by his rival, Khasbulatov called on Russians to "raise their voices in support of democracy and parliamentarianism." Yeltsin's camp, meanwhile, says the democratically elected president is the only true representative of the people. Presidential rule is an awkward measure to sell: the way Yeltsin's advisers put it, the president may have to become an autocrat to defend democracy.

In a clear attempt to reassure Washington before his crucial summit with President Clinton next month, Yeltsin stressed that Russia will be "loyal to its international obligations" and that the military has been instructed to stay out of politics. The president promised to respect human rights and said he would carry out his program "without extreme measures and arbitrary rule." By taking his case to the people, he concluded, the cause of democracy would be served. "You will decide everything by your vote," he said.

Alerted several hours before the speech of its contents, the Clinton administration promptly lined up behind Yeltsin. "As Russia's only democratically elected leader, he has our support," said spokesman George Stephanopoulos. The White House believed it had no choice. "He is the central force for reform in Russia," said one administration official. "Why would we cut his legs off?" But officials saw little prospect that the summit, or even more aid, will significantly bolster his case in time for the vote. They also worried that Yeltsin's appeal to his people could backfire. "An angry public may be tempted to vote thumbs down on Yeltsin just to express its anger," warned an aide.

Russians would certainly have their reasons. Inflation is running higher than 2,000 percent and crime is rampant. Democracy sounded good when a fiery-eyed Yeltsin stood up to the putschists and promised to bring goods into the empty stores. Today democracy is often dismissed as empty political rhetoric. "In Russia, democracy has only one meaning: the movement against the old communist regime," says Yuri Levada, a prominent sociologist. On the streets, however, the old communists no longer look so bad; nor do the democrats look so great. "I feel lost, I don't feel that we have democracy," says Irina Serova, 30, an engineer. "I felt freer before, because now only money rules. I wouldn't like strong-arm rule, but I think we need order."

Given such public confusion, Yeltsin will have to phrase the questions of his referendum carefully. He seems sure to win support for his call for private ownership of land. But he will have to avoid reference to other reforms, which have eroded the standard of living. Mobilizing a pre-referendum campaign will be difficult at a time when people care more about the price of sausage than the division of power.

Yeltsin acknowledged public concerns that the country has flown out of control. "Let's not just worry about reforms but get simple order in Russia," he said. But he offered no specifics on how to achieve his goals. Instead, Yeltsin simply announced a long list of vague promises to accelerate privatization, permit land ownership, stabilize the ruble, bring inflation under control and reassert his authority over wayward regional leaders. His one specific pledge was to fire those leaders who are blocking his reforms.

The breakup of the Soviet Union, economic collapse and political crisis have fueled a profound Russian identity crisis. During the months following the putsch, Russia had a love affair with the West, during which Western capitalists could do no wrong. Some Russians these days are wondering if Western-style capitalism, which has taken on especially ruthless qualities in Russia, is appropriate. "Our society doesn't accept capitalism," says Anatoly Lukyanov, former speaker of the Soviet Parliament and codefendant in next month's coup trial. "We have never had the kind of egotistical individualism you have in the West."

Democracy is a concept that some suspect might not fit Russia, either. Even under the czars, the collective was more important to the peasants than the individual. And Soviet propaganda was so powerful that it could take a generation at least to rid Russians of their collective thinking. But last week the majority of Russians weren't rushing to support the "red-brown" coalition of communists and nationalists, either-though its supporters were already claiming victory. "The political period of radical democratic processes is over," says Aleksandr Prokhanov, editor of the pro-communist newspaper Den. "The doctrine of national salvation will be declared and the interests of the motherland will come first. This doctrine will allow us to get rid of the contradictions in society." His gloating is premature; many Russians still look to the West as a progressive influence that can help their country.

The most alarming scenarios may yet prove wrong, even if democracy's prospects look shaky. "Russia is gradually moving toward a Latin America variant: authoritarian, corrupt, but not totalitarian," says Sergei Grigoryants, a human-rights activist who is editor of the Glasnost bulletin. "For Russia, this is still a step forward." Under such authoritarian rule, economic reforms could continue to develop at the grass roots. Former party bosses turned businessmen are already becoming a base of support for reforms. And a Russia with even a Pinochet-type leader could remain open to the outside world, allowing exchanges and exposure to the West to promote gradual reforms.

Yeltsin lost critical time by waffling on confronting the communist holdovers in the Parliament until last week. If he had called elections a year ago, he would have had much more political capital. In polls taken before his speech, Yeltsin was still more popular than the Parliament. But about half of the respondents said they trust no one. And 43 percent said they would not vote in a referendum.

Yeltsin's supporters are planning demonstrations in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities this Sunday, in a bid to stir up the kind of support they won in 1991. But back then, people were full of hope, and now the population is deeply cynical. Even under "special rule," many Russians wonder if Yeltsin has the authority-or the mechanisms-with which to enforce his policies.

Russia has never before had a benevolent dictator. Even under Peter the Great, who opened the country up to the West and introduced economic reforms in the 18th century, life became worse for the common people as he taxed them to build up his military. Now, again, the Russians are suffering at the hands of a reformer. But the Russian people have changed. Their exposure to ideas from the outside world in recent years has taught them to hope for more. The fact that people no longer automatically believe either those who call themselves democrats or their opponents may be a sign of progress. They are reluctant to endorse the black and white characterizations of the contenders. But that means Yeltsin once again faces the formidable task of persuading the people that his is the best hope for a democratic future.

PHOTO: 'Russia cannot stand another October Revolution': The president (SERGEI KARPUKHIN)

PHOTO: The challenge this time was not from half-drunk coup plotters: An anti-Yeltsin protester (ANDY HERNANDEZ FOR NEWSWEEK)