Time to Follow the Law

In firing Primakov, Yeltsin wants to do battle again. As the lore about Yeltsin goes (of which he himself writes in his memoirs), he is a high-risk taker who always is at his best in times of crisis. When push comes to shove, Yeltsin has an impressive track record of success. So, it should not be surprising that he is tempted into believing that he will win again.

Too much time in power at the top can give a leader a warped sense of omnipotence and invincibility. It's true of people in the White House in Washington. It's even truer of those who spend too much time in the Kremlin. You have all those phones on your desk. You have that motorcade that whisks you around the city and forces everyone else to stop in their tracks until you have passed. With a growl, you can make Cabinet officials play musical chairs. With a decree, you can remove from power the most popular government official in Russia.

The power you feel sitting inside the Kremlin, however, does not always correspond to the power you have to influence events outside of the Kremlin. Ask those who plotted the coup attempt in August 1991. I did. Because I am writing a book on the evolution of Soviet and Russian political institutions over the last decade, I have interviewed many of those involved in orchestrating the use of force, both in August 1991 and October 1993.

In 1991, the coup plotters had a false sense of their own power. Having spent their whole careers working in hierarchical Soviet state organizations, they believed in the power of the Kremlin phone call. From their perch inside the Kremlin, they thought that they could prevail over the pesky and disorganized democrats. They miscalculated. October 1993 was a similar situation. The balance of power between those in the Kremlin and those in the White House was relatively equal. This time around, the Kremlin did prevail, but only barely.

In contrast to both 1991 and 1993, the balance of power within Russia is much clearer today in favor of those outside of the Kremlin. Yeltsin does not have the means to successfully execute an extraconstitutional act. Who will carry it out? Yes, his new acting prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, comes from the Interior Ministry and has some loyal troops under his control. But the majority of the armed forces and the intelligence services would not support such an act.

Nor would the majority of the Russian people. In 1993, roughly half of the population still supported Yeltsin. Today, polls indicate that only 2 percent of the population supports Yeltsin, and these polls have a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

And under what principle will they act? In 1993, Yeltsin could make the case, however lamely, that he was destroying a Soviet-era institution in the name of constitutional and market reform. Today, only the most pathetic apologists for Yeltsin are prepared to make these kinds of arguments. The political system in place today in Russia is one that Yeltsin himself designed. Yeltsin and his team wrote the Constitution, not Stalinist hacks from yesteryear. If he breaks these rules, no one can justify it with a straight face in the name of democracy.

Equally silly is the argument that the Constitution needs to be suspended for the sake of economic reform. Yeltsin and his spin-doctors are trying to portray this new standoff between parliament and president through the same lens that the 1993 standoff was constructed - good-guy reformists in the executive versus bad-guy Communists in the parliament. No one - in Moscow or Washington - is prepared to buy this oversimplified portrayal today.

Consequently, it is hard to understand why Russian liberal economic reformers are thinking of joining the Stepashin government.

The experience in the post-communist world is that authoritarian regimes are the worst economic performers while parliamentary democracies have the highest rates of economic growth.

In contrast to 1993, Yeltsin also cannot rely on regional leaders to rally to his cause. Yeltsin had hoped that the Federation Council would serve as his Central Committee, a kind of club of regional barons not unlike the old days.

Instead, the Federation Council has established itself as a powerful and independent political body that will not sanction a Yeltsin abrogation of the Constitution. Just as republican leaders resisted the coup attempt in August 1991, these regional leaders will act to check Yeltsin should he be tempted to try to hold power through extraconstitutional means.

Finally, in comparing 1991 and 1993 with today's situation, there is also another important difference regarding the West. In these earlier conflicts, the West, and the Clinton administration in particular, supported Yeltsin's side. It is absolutely clear that this support will not be forthcoming this time around from any Western capital and most certainly not from Washington. If Yeltsin is banking on Western blessing for an extraconstitutional act, he is gravely miscalculating. In the U.S., there is an amazing consensus among Russian analysts that Yeltsin should not violate the Constitution and could not successfully complete an extraconstitutional action if he tried.

Yeltsin's passionate decision to remove Primakov may have demonstrated to Yeltsin and his entourage that the old man still has it - that when push comes to shove, he can still step up to the plate and deliver

However, Yeltsin will not prevail if he attempts to resolve this political crisis by extraconstitutional means. All those who care about Russian democracy - be they in Moscow, Washington or London - should make this clear to Yeltsin before it's too late.

Michael McFaul is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a professor of political science at Stanford University. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.