Boris Yeltsin is no quitter. He is a survivor whose political instincts are not as wobbly as the state of his government would indicate. His insistence on not retiring means he is willing to make the compromises necessary to stay in power, and that may mean a resurgence of Communist influence.
Americans who have been preoccupied with White House scandals ought to rouse themselves and pay attention.The Communists have strong influence in the Russian Parliament, and its plan for restoring order calls for a return to state control over much of the economy. Key industries would be nationalized again after seven years of turning to the private sector. In addition, much of the power Yeltsin now wields would be turned over to Parliament.
Communists were in large part responsible for Parliament's rejection Monday of Yeltsin's new/old prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin. He may end up having to appoint Communists to his Cabinet as an appeasement.
All this is tricky business, of course. Russia wants and needs help from the rest of the civilized world, and it is clear the International Monetary Fund, which has funneled millions of dollars of loans to the Russian government, would not take kindly to the re-emergence of a state-controlled economy. But in the meantime, the ruble is quickly becoming worthless, customers are storming banks to withdraw their money, and many people are getting hungry.
It's a scene reminiscent of the United States at the start of the Great Depression or, perhaps more aptly, of Russia immediately before the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Indeed, Alexander Kotenkov, Yeltsin's parliamentary envoy, warned this week of a possible uprising that would be "merciless and senseless" unless the government finds a solution to the crisis.
Against this backdrop, Americans probably shouldn't expect much other than symbolism to come from President Clinton's visit to Moscow this week. But that symbolism may be important. Regardless whether Yeltsin survives his current crisis, the United States must be close at hand to urge Russia in the direction of freedom and human rights. The main danger now is that democracy and capitalism may have been discredited in the eyes of many Russians.
The United States still has the power to lead by example and persuasion, and that may be the thing that ultimately saves Russia from ruin.