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Analysis From Washington - Yeltsin's Response to DumaBackfires

  • Paul Goble

Washington, March 20 (RFE/RL) - Boris Yeltsin's continuing harsh reaction to last Friday's Duma vote rejecting the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union is already beginning to backfire.

The Russian president's initial criticism on Saturday of the decision suggested that he hoped to win support for opposing a step extraordinarily unpopular abroad and to sharpen political divisions at home in support of his own reelection campaign.

But his subsequent statements and actions this week have largely undercut those gains by highlighting Yeltsin's own interest in using the current controversy for his own political ends and to promote his own plans for the reintegration of the former Soviet Union.

While the Duma vote undoubtedly reflected a significant portion of Russian public opinion, it succeeded in offending virtually everyone abroad without achieving any actual change in the existing situation.

On the one hand, world leaders, including U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, denounced the vote as reckless. Eleven of the 12 CIS states condemned the move, and perhaps most significantly the Ukrainian government indicated that it was now more interested in contacts with NATO, a step the Duma's communist and nationalist factions could not possibly have wanted.

On the other, as Yeltsin himself quite correctly pointed out in his official reaction on Saturday, the Duma vote had no practical consequences. It could not have the force of law unless Yeltsin signed it -- something he pledged not to do -- and it could not be enforced even if he did.

Consequently, had Yeltsin left the situation at that, the Duma's action might have frightened some in the former Soviet republics, but Yeltsin's response would have looked statesmanlike at home and abroad and guaranteed him both gratitude and support.

Unfortunately for him, Yeltsin was unprepared to do so. Instead, he convened the upper house of parliament to discuss the matter, and some of the Federation Council members used the occasion to suggest that unless the Duma backed off, the presidential elections would have to be postponed. Since many Russians have long suspected that Yeltsin, who still trails in the polls, would like to see that happen, his opposition to the Duma vote began to look like a selfish political maneuver rather than a principled position.

Such a view gained still more ground when Yeltsin called for a CIS summit to discuss the Duma decision and when Yeltsin's aides told the press that Yeltsin himself plans to use a speech later this month to promote the reintegration of at least part of the former Soviet space.

Such statements suggest that Yeltsin wants to have it both ways: to get credit for opposing the Duma and to get credit for pushing a line very similar to that of the communist-nationalist majority there.

While that may seem to be clever politically, it may be too clever by half. Those who want to reintegrate the Soviet space are likely to conclude that Yeltsin isn't the man to do it and to back his opponents even more vigorously.

Those -- especially in the former Soviet republics -- who fear that Moscow wants to reintegrate the USSR are even less likely to view Yeltsin as a bulwark against that eventuality and thus seek to find allies in the West. And those in the West who fear a communist and nationalist resurgence in Russia may conclude that Yeltsin's own response to the Duma vote suggests that he has lost the political sense that has served him so well in the past.

To the extent these things happen, Yeltsin's response to the Duma resolution may be even more harmful to his political future than the Duma vote itself.