The Melee In Moscow: For Now, Gorby Has Yeltsin On The Ropes

Echoing off the Kremlin's walls, voices of 100,000 Muscovites chanted: "Yeltsin, president--Gorbachev, leave." Supporters of Boris N. Yeltsin, the combative President of the Russian Republic, turned out for the Feb. 24 rally to back his demand a few days earlier that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev resign and hand over power to the leaders of the 15 Soviet republics.

Yeltsin's challenge raises the stakes in the increasingly bitter rivalry between the two leaders. Gorbachev, the originator of perestroika, is now tenaciously defending the central government's continued tight control over the economy and over the restless Soviet federation. Like Gorbachev, Yeltsin began as a Communist apparatchik. But he has become a champion of economic and political reform and of the republics' demands for greater freedom to manage their own affairs. For the U. S., the outcome of this struggle to reshape the other superpower may be far more important in the long run than the outcome of the current crisis in the Persian Gulf.

'LOSING HOPE.' Right now, Yeltsin is in trouble. Although he is still the country's most popular politician, his support is eroding as citizens see few results from his promised reforms. After Gorbachev rejected the "500 Days" plan for radical market reform last fall, Yeltsin vowed to push forward with the scheme in the Russian Republic. But his efforts to privatize have been stymied by Communist Party bureaucrats and state enterprise managers who back Gorbachev. Said a school teacher attending the Feb. 24 rally: "People are losing hope." Gorbachev's party-controlled press has also been aiming thunderous criticism at Yeltsin associates, including charges of shady currency deals that last month forced Russian Deputy Prime Minister Gennady I. Filshin to resign. Prime Minister Ivan S. Silaev may be next.

By counterattacking, Yeltsin is gambling that he can galvanize democratic resistance against Gorbachev's turn to the right. He is also hoping to force Gorbachev to accept last year's declarations of sovereignty by all 15 republics. Most of them, led by the Russian Republic, are pushing for a new "treaty of the union" that would give them control over their own economies in a looser Soviet confederation. But Yeltsin's challenge may be backfiring. Leaders of the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, although they strongly back the campaign for a confederation, rebuked Yeltsin for urging Gorbachev to quit.

NO DISCUSSION. A turning point could be Gorbachev's Mar. 17 referendum on preserving the Soviet Union as a "federation of republics." Its vague wording seems sure to win a "yes" vote that he will interpret as backing for his version of the proposed union treaty. Gorbachev's scheme would keep power centralized in Moscow through control over hard-currency earnings and key resources. Gorbachev could also use the results of the vote to justify imposing martial law or presidential rule in renegade territories. The Baltics, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldavia are refusing to hold the referendum or even to discuss the treaty.

To counter Gorbachev, Yeltsin is adding a question to the referendum ballot in the Russian Republic, asking citizens if they favor election of the republic's president by direct vote rather than by Parliament. A massive "yes" will be seen as popular support for Yeltsin. That would help blunt an attack by conservative legislators who have called a Mar. 28 session of the Congress of People's Deputies, the republic's senior legislative body, to assess Yeltsin's performance. And when Gorbachev decrees 60% price hikes, probably in March, Yeltsin is likely to mobilize popular resentment against the measure.

Sooner or later, the republics' demands for more independence seem bound to result in a looser Soviet federation. But Yeltsin's showdown with Gorbachev may determine whether that happens peacefully now--or later, after much turmoil.

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