Yeltsin's Coup De Grace

ONCE AGAIN, PROTESTERS formed a protective cordon around the White House, Russia's Parliament building, shouting their defiance of the government. Once again, legislators hunkered down inside, ignoring Kremlin orders to disperse and waiting fearfully for the sound of gunfire. Echoes of the failed coup of August 1991 were numerous and ironic. Only this time Boris Yeltsin was not holding out valiantly in the White House against coupmaking communist hard-liners. This time, Yeltsin was on the outside, staging a coup of his own against them.

By the end of the week, it seemed to be working. Troops loyal to Yeltsin tightened a ring around the White House. After one shooting incident elsewhere in Moscow, in which two people died, he ordered the disarming of the ragtag militia defending the Parliament building. His defense minister, Gen. Pavel Grachev, said there would be "no storming" of the White House. But he warned that his troops would "shoot to kill" if attacked. Parliament's defenders quickly hid their weapons, which ranged from assault rifles to grenades and homemade Molotov cocktails. Legislators began to slip away from their stronghold, some to collect the continued perks--salaries, apartments, medical benefits--that Yeltsin had offered defectors. Supporters of Parliament looked for a compromise, but there was no sign yet that the president wanted to give them a face-saving way out. "This is their last gasp," he told a television interviewer Saturday, looking relaxed in shirt sleeves. "They've got nothing left."

Did it matter that Yeltsin was acting unconstitutionally? So were his diehard opponents in the Parliament. Quite illegally, each tried to dismiss the other, like rival 14th-century popes hurling edicts of excommunication back and forth. By now, Russia's Soviet-era Constitution had been amended, bypassed and ignored so often that legality hardly counted. In the long run. Yeltsin was prepared to resolve the political stalemate democratically, with new elections later on for both the Parliament and his own presidency. But if the current Parliament collapsed, Russia would be run by one man until elections could be held.

Yet Russia was in such despair and disarray that ending the Moscow gridlock would fix almost nothing by itself. Outside the capital, many regions were going their own way, ignoring orders from the center and withholding tax revenues. Local governors were squabbling with local legislatures, mirroring Yeltsin's feud with Parliament. Although the Russian military command appeared to be united in support of the president, there was discord in the ranks, and thus Yeltsin's crackdown on Parliament carried the ultimate risk of civil war. Even if he prevailed peacefully in the capital, he would be hard pressed to hold together a vast country that was rapidly splitting into more pieces than its 11 time zones.

Bill Clinton. who learned about Yeltsin's move against Parliament only an hour in advance, quickly backed the Russian president, despite any misgivings about his methods. "We want to be there for you when you need us," U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher told Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev in a phone call last Wednesday. The U.S. Senate pushed through a foreign-aid bill that included $2.5 billion for Russia. But Yeltsin's opponents, many of them ardent nationalists, turned his popularity with foreigners against him. The leader of Parliament, Rusian Khasbulatov, accused "the former president" of conducting "a foreign policy of national humiliation, the policy of a lackey."

The makings of a compromise were easily visible. Two days after dissolving Parliament, Yeltsin announced that a presidential election would be held next June, two years ahead of schedule. Some of his foes quickly suggested that the presidential and parliamentary elections be held at the same time, which could offer a graceful way out for both sides. But Yeltsin held firm. Late last week his spokesman said: "The president gave two dates for elections, and he hasn't changed his mind."

Initially, the Russian military declared itself in a "neutral position," promising to stay out of politics. But sources in Moscow told NEWSWEEK that Defense Minister Grachev was outraged when Aleksandr Rutskoi, the man named by Parliament to be "acting president," selected an old rival, Gen. Vladislav Achalov, as his defense minister. A witness said Grachev pounded his fist and shouted: "I will never give up this office!" The day after he moved against Parliament, Yeltsin put on a display of solidarity with the security forces, strolling through Moscow's Pushkin Square with Grachev and Interior Minister Viktor Yerin.

The rank and file were not all that happy with the president. "In my unit, everyone is against Yeltsin," said an army captain who stood, dressed in civilian clothes, outside the White House. Only a few military men were prepared to act. One was Lt. Col. Stanislav Terekhov, leader of the influential Union of Russian Officers. "You may think they are in power now, but we will be tomorrow," he told NEWSWEEK at the White House. "We have plans, and we will remember who supported us." Later, gun-men attacked a military command post in Moscow, and two people died. Terekhov was arrested; police said eyewitnesses identified him as one of the attackers.

U.S. analysts thought the military stood to gain most from supporting Yeltsin. Russia's armed forces are in a state of near collapse. According to Pentagon analysts, the military will be down to 1.2 million troops by the end of this year, and more than half of them will be officers--640,000 of them, leaders without followers. "The conscripts aren't reporting [for duty], and the serving soldiers are deserting," says John Hines, a longtime U.S. expert on the Russian military. When vicious ethnic fighting broke out again last week in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the Russians were unable to play their customary peacekeeping role. Grachev withdrew an earlier offer to send troops, claiming he didn't have enough men.

The war in Georgia also underlined perhaps the greatest long-term threat to Yeltsin--regional conflicts throughout the former Soviet Union. In Russia, growing tensions between Russians and non-Russians make it harder and harder to hold the country together. Hoping to avoid unrest, Yeltsin has offered tax breaks and increased autonomy to ethnic republics, such as Bashkortostan, 700 miles east of Moscow. But that alienated Russians in the key industrial areas of Siberia and the Urals. Chelyabinsk province, a Russian region next to Bashkortostan, has bitter feelings about Yeltsin. "Every time we try to do something, we run into our father, the tsar," complains Anatoly Nacharov, chairman of the province's legislature, which denounced Yeltsin's coup. The government has tried to appease the Russian regions by allowing some, including Chelyabinsk, to keep 50 percent of their tax revenues, instead of the usual 30 percent. But about a third of the 89 regions aren't sending any tax money to Moscow.

Yeltsin must keep his nation together if he wants to obtain all the foreign aid that has been promised. Much of that assistance was put on hold by last summer's political turmoil, with Parliament blocking efforts at privatization. The International Monetary Fund had planned to send Russia a second $1.5 billion in "transformation" assistance, perhaps next month. Then a team of IMF experts traveled to Moscow a few weeks ago and came back shaking their heads over the prospects for economic reform.

It isn't at all clear that anyone can unify Russia. The Clinton administration concluded that it has an interest in maintaining a single Russia, mainly because of the conflicts that disintegration would cause. The official line from administration Russia watchers--the "national intelligence estimates" that supposedly represent the consensus of U.S. government analysts--was that Yeltsin can hold the federation together. "That's what the White House wants to hear," said one source. "That's what the White House is being told." But a growing number of American analysts, inside and outside the government, disagreed, They thought it was only a matter of time before the Russian Federation went the way of the Soviet Union.

In Russia, Yeltsin's supporters argued that only a clean break with the old system, and elections for a new legislature, could create a workable political system. "Yeltsin broke the law," said Igor Golembiovsky, editor in chief of the daily newspaper Izvestia. "But if you look at the fate of the country, he did the right thing." Yet in doing so, Yeltsin set himself up as a strongman--a benevolent dictator, perhaps--and that kind of ruler can operate only through a highly centralized state. A return to centralization seems to be the last thing Moscow needs, either for its beleaguered economy or its credibility with the rest of Russia and the world. Even if Yeltsin routs his rivals in Parliament, his fight--and the effort to rebuild Russia--will have barely begun.