For Yeltsin's Foes, `It's Now Or Never'

Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin is about to face his most serious challenge since the failed coup of August, 1991. Two powerful groups are launching sharp attacks on his reform efforts. One is a coalition of angry former communists and Russian nationalists called the National Salvation Front, which wants to oust Yeltsin and his government. The other, the more moderate Civic Union led by state-industry leader Arkady Volsky, is trying to put the brakes on a huge sell-off of state assets scheduled to start in December.

The showdown should begin at a special Congress of People's Deputies beginning on Dec. 1. Yeltsin suffered one tactical defeat recently when he lost a vote to delay the congress. While the big event will be a vote of confidence in the government, the real issue is the plan to sell off 60% of state industry by yearend 1993. Bureaucrats and managers of military enterprises are heavily represented in the congress. A core group of them still staunchly resist privatization, fearing it will cost them their jobs. "For those who want to retain privileges and stop reform, it's now or never," says Pyotr Filippov, chairman of the Russian parliament's subcommittee on privatization.

BANNED PARTY. The challenge from the opposition has backed Yeltsin into a tight corner. The National Salvation Front, if backed by Volsky's group, would have enough votes to oust acting Prime Minister Yegor T. Gaidar, a radical reformer, as well as his Cabinet. They are unlikely to get enough votes to oust Yeltsin. That's because Volsky, while in favor of getting rid of some ministers, still supports the president. But the government is clearly on the defensive. It recently said that mid-November talks with the International Monetary Fund on foreign aid and reform would likely be delayed.

In the coming weeks, Yeltsin will be scrambling to blunt the opposition attacks. He just issued a decree banning the National Salvation Front, and there are rumors of other authoritarian measures. But it is unclear whether he can make such moves stick.

Government officials say that Yeltsin may shake up the Cabinet but try to keep the two crucial figures--Gaidar and his privatization minister, Anatoly Chubais. But he may be forced to compromise with Volsky's clique. That would mean either firing Gaidar or saddling him with a far more state-regulated economy than he wants.

OMINOUS SIGNS? A more radical option under discussion is for Yeltsin to call a referendum on holding new elections. The current Congress, elected in 1990, is now widely considered to be more conservative than the populace, so he might well win.

While Yeltsin has yet to show his cards, the increasing power of the communist and nationalist opposition is causing concern. Particularly ominous is the growing presence in the opposition ranks of such controversial figures as Army General Albert Makashov and anti-Western KGB bigwig Alexander Sterligov. The growing influence of such figures could lead to instability in the security forces and perhaps an attempt to restore the command economy. "It would be a disaster," says Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev.

Even if Yeltsin holds the opposition off, the government is unlikely to be in any position to agree to meet the stiff IMF requirements that are the key to winning more Western aid. Whatever the outcome, the ongoing political fight is likely to cast a pall over economic reform.

Rose Brady in Moscow Edited by Stanley Reed

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