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.