Yeltsin: Product-- and Enemy-- of the System Each Attack Enhances His Popularity



At the special Congress of People's Deputies of the Russian Federation opening this Thursday, the Communist Party is plotting an attack aimed at unseating the parliament's chairman, Boris N. Yeltsin.

But if history is any guide, the party's blows will rebound mainly against its own reputation, leaving Mr. Yeltsin's popularity enhanced.

For Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin is the phoenix of Russian politics, the indispensable man. He plays the indefatigable, unconquerable Roadrunner to the toothy but hapless Communist Coyote.

He has two qualifications that uniquely prepared him to lead the Soviet opposition in the current transition period: He is a product TC of Soviet totalitarianism, having climbed the careerist ladder to the top of the Communist Party heap. And he is its sworn enemy, having himself experienced the ruthlessness with which the system crushes its opponents.

The resulting politician is a complex, evolving character in the Soviet political drama who is an enigma for many of his compatriots, let alone for foreigners. His craggy, plastic face can turn instantly from fierce scowl to beaming smile to a teasing look of mock-surprise.

An American attuned to the grossly oversimplified Yeltsin image of, say, late 1989 -- demagogue, opportunist, clown, drunk -- may have a hard time adjusting to the possibly idealized Yeltsin image of early 1991 -- statesman, democrat, leader of the anti-totalitarian forces in the Soviet Union.

But if being the thorn in Mikhail S. Gorbachev's side in 1988 meant being a potentially dangerous threat to reform, standing up to Mr. Gorbachev today may mean being a crucial defender of reform.

Mr. Gorbachev, who made Mr. Yeltsin's career and now spends much energy trying to unmake it, last May put his finger on his achievements, though that was not the word he used.

Pleading with the Russian parliament not to elect Mr. Yeltsin its chairman, Mr. Gorbachev pointed out that Mr. Yeltsin's platform speech "did not mention socialism once."

"With one stroke of the pen, so to speak, he wishes to invite us to say farewell to our socialist choice made in 1917," Mr. Gorbachev declared. Mr. Yeltsin's goal, he said, was "to separate Russia from socialism."

Still worse, Mr. Gorbachev said: "If, comrades, you very seriously subject to analysis what he is offering under the banner of restoring the sovereignty of Russia, this is a call for disintegration of the union."

Precisely: Mr. Yeltsin was the first Communist Party leader to admit that Leninist ideology was simply wrong, had not worked and must be junked.

He did it not only publicly, he did it with flair and humor -- declaring in a Houston supermarket, for instance, "Even the Politburo doesn't have such choice."

More recently, Mr. Yeltsin has become the first high-level Soviet leader to admit that holding the Soviet Union together by force is wrong and that it cannot prosper except as a truly voluntary union.

He said it not only publicly, but with drama and courage. When Soviet troops last January seized Lithuanian TV facilities, leaving 14 dead, he immediately flew to Estonia to consult with Baltic leaders, sign a pledge of support for their independence drives and appeal to Russian soldiers not to shoot civilians.

To the Communist hierarchy, this was an unforgivable sin, even worse than his rejection of Soviet ideology. For decades, the Soviet empire had talked internationalism while displaying Russian nationalism: the second-in-command in every republic was a Russian, as were the elite military officers who controlled the country's nuclear might.

Mr. Yeltsin is separating Russian patriotism from Soviet imperialism. He is giving Russians the freedom to be for a sovereign Russia -- and also for, say, a sovereign Estonia.

This drives Mr. Gorbachev crazy precisely because it is the logical continuation of the reforms he started when he came to office in 1985. Paradoxically, Mr. Gorbachev can't forgive Mr. Yeltsin for betraying Soviet totalitarianism even more completely and consistently than he himself has dared, or chosen, to do.

Mr. Yeltsin was born in 1931, just one month before his future mentor and rival. He grew up in a family of ordinary laborers in the cold, hungry, hardscrabble Ural Mountains during Stalin's industrialization.

His subsequent biography reads like that of a thousand Soviet political figures: work in the construction industry in Sverdlovsk, party membership to make advancement possible, an eventual switch to the party bureaucracy, and a climb through the party apparat.

In 1976, at the age of 45, he became party chief in Sverdlovsk region, with near-absolute power in a key industrial territory four times the size of Maryland and with a slightly larger population. He held the job for a decade, earning a reputation as a competent, demanding but by no means iconoclastic party boss.

He knew all his subordinates by face and name, down to service personnel, and many feared meeting him in the hallway for fear of the severe dressing-downs he often gave them, according to Boris Yarkov, a Sverdlovsk journalist.

Most ordinary residents, on the contrary, remember him fondly as the first party chief to hold frequent meetings with the public and to appear on local television to answer viewers' questions, Mr. Yarkov said.

This pattern was repeated in Moscow, where Mr. Gorbachev put Mr. Yeltsin in charge of cleaning house in the entrenched and corrupt party bureaucracy. But if in Sverdlovsk Mr. Yeltsin had been dealing with his own people, in Moscow he was crossing swords with the nation's elite, closing their special stores, threatening their array of privileges.

Soon, Mr. Yeltsin had made enemies of not only the local party apparat, but of the conservatives in the Politburo as well, led by Yegor K. Ligachev. Their clash led to Mr. Yeltsin's stormy resignation -- and the beginning of the boomerang effect, in which the party's assaults have boosted his standing with the electorate.

Surely some of the criticism is on target. Mr. Yeltsin has admitted many times that he has a "difficult personality" and that he is a product of the dictatorial system in which he made his career. He has justly been accused of using some privileges while denouncing them and of being less than honest about some scandalous moments in his private life.

Even more seriously, he has been accused of cheap, irresponsible populism on the economy. For a long time, for instance, he promised crowds that fixed, low food prices were compatible with a market economy.

But as Russian leader, he has largely dropped such talk. He has shown more willingness than Mr. Gorbachev to appoint serious economic advisers and to listen to their advice. He championed the radical "500 days" economic plan consistently; Mr. Gorbachev at first endorsed it, and then rejected it under pressure from conservatives.

A number of Soviet political observers, including the political scientist Alexander S. Tsypko and the historian Roy A. Medvedev, have expressed regret that the democratic opposition is led not by former dissidents, but by such former Communist apparatchiks as Mr. Yeltsin.

But Andrei M. Mironov, himself a former dissident and political prisoner, said such complaints are unrealistic.

"Soviet dissidents were too severely isolated from society -- much more than in Eastern Europe," he said. Unlike in Czechoslovakia or Poland, where dissidents swiftly became presidents, the Soviet Union had no realistic candidates for leadership among dissidents, who had few ties to the broad public, he said.

Hence Communists -- or former Communists, since Mr. Yeltsin quit the party in July -- are indispensable transition figures, Mr. Mironov said.

As for the dissidents, he said: "Their time is coming."

Up and Down with Yeltsin

The political rollercoaster ride of Boris N. Yeltsin over the past five years is hard to match in any country's political history. Some of its high and low points:

* March, 1986: Moscow Communist Party Chief, candidate member of the Politburo, rising star among dynamic reformers brought to the capital by Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Admired by media and public for candor and hands-on approach to the city's problems.

* October, 1987: Resigns in emotional speech to plenum of Communist Party Central Committee. Publicly lacerated in speech after speech at a susequent meeting of party leaders as arrogant, unstable and incompetent. Given dead-end minor job as deputy chief of State Construction Committee by Mr. Gorbachev, who tells him he will not be allowed to return to politics.

* March, 1989: Elected to Congress of People's Deputies from Moscow with 90 percent of the vote despite, or because of, all-out party propaganda campaign against him. Becomes a co-chairman of radical Interregional Deputies Group, along with human rights advocate Andrei D. Sakharov.

* October, 1989: Appears soaking wet late at night at a police post outside Moscow, claiming would-be assassins threw him into a river. Withdraws story but fails to offer convincing explanation. Scandal comes after much-publicized speech at John Hopkins University during U.S. tour in an apparently intoxicated state. Some embarrassed allies begin to distance themselves.

* May, 1990: Elected by overwhelming margin to the Russian Federation parliament from his native city of Sverdlovsk, seeks the post of parliament's chairman, Russia's equivalent of a presidency. Despite the usual Communist Party slander campaign and personal appeal from Mr. Gorbachev to deputies to vote against him, wins Russia's top post.

* January, 1991: After 14 people are killed as Soviet troops seize Lithuanian television facilities, he flies to Estonia and consults with Baltic leaders, recognizing the independence aspirations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and promising Russia's support. Appeals to Russian soldiers not to shoot civilians. Again becomes the target of a party propaganda campaign attacking him as anti-Russian, unstable, incompetent, etc.

* March, 1991: Party manages to call special Russian Congress of People's Deputies for March 28 with goal of unseating him. But he outwits them by calling on March 17 a popular referendum on creation of direct elections for a Russian presidency, which passes. He will undoubtedly be the leading candidate.

Scott Shane is The Sun's Moscow correspondent.

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