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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Defeat From Jaws Of Victory

For the second time in less than a year, President Boris Yeltsin appears to have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory -- this time in the form of the release of the men he went to such lengths to put behind bars last year.

The first occasion came after the April 1993 referendum on confidence in Yeltsin's rule, which the president won, and then appeared to ignore. Initially demoralized, the parliamentary opposition regrouped their forces and soon returned to the attack.

Yeltsin came perilously close to a second and conclusive defeat last Oct. 3, when his staff were caught unawares by the violent White House uprising. Only after a night spent persuading the military to support him was the president able to bring the situation under control.

Yet after Oct. 4, Yeltsin seemed finally to have won his war with the legislature. The Supreme Soviet was dissolved; fresh elections were called; a new constitution was passed; and former Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, ex-parliamentary speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov and the other White House leaders were safely behind bars.

By now, virtually all of these gains have slipped away.

First Yeltsin lost the December election for a new parliament, with voters returning to power a conservative-dominated mix of deputies similar to the old one. Next, he lost a battle over the government, sacrificing proponents of market reform after their disastrous performance at the polls.

Now the leaders of the October uprising have been released from jail. The unfortunate message to Russians appears to be: If you want to try to overthrow the president, go ahead -- parliament will protect you from any consequences.

Of the men released Saturday, Viktor Anpilov has already returned to the streets to address a demonstration. The bearded Rutskoi now looks more than ever like a contender for the post of president in 1996.

Where this will lead is unclear. Yeltsin has appeared outmaneuvered before and yet has survived. But, emerging from the amnesty fiasco, the president looks weak and has a lot of questions to answer. Why, for example, has he still not appointed the new Constitutional Court that could have handled his complaints over the Duma's instant amnesty for the coup leaders?

Why are there no means in the new constitution -- which Yeltsin tailored to his own requirements -- for him to contest a parliamentary declaration of amnesty?

Why did Yeltsin say nothing to fight the amnesty proposal during his speech last Thursday, and then try to prevent the release at the last minute? Why is his staff in such disarray? Why does Russia's president seem so out of touch? Is he still in charge?