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Behind the Headlines; Congress Will Be Test for Yeltsin, but Coup Unlikely, Says Vaad Chair

Along with everyone else in Russia, Jewish leaders here are waiting to see what will result from next week’s session of the Russian Congress of People’s Deputies, which is being seen as a major test for President Boris Yeltsin.

But there are no alarm bells ringing, despite a flurry of rumors about civil unrest and even the possibility of a right-wing coup against the Yeltsin government.

The 1,042-member congress, which is the supreme legal authority in Russia under a constitution inherited from the Brezhnev era, is set to convene here beginning Dec. 1.

“My forecast is that it will be rather noisy at the outset,” said Michael Chlenov, co-president of the Vaad, the main umbrella group of Jewish organizations in the former Soviet Union.

“There will be an attempt to impeach Yeltsin, which is unlikely to succeed, and an attempt to force (pro-reform Prime Minister Yegor) Gaidar out, but I think there’s a good chance he’ll survive,” he said.

“The real question is what political baggage the government will take away from the congress,” said Chlenov.

He was referring to a possible slowdown on the pace of economic reform that may be forced on Yeltsin by centrist forces, such as Civic Union, which represents the interests of large state enterprises that have yet to be privatized.

“If the congress reverses some of the key reforms that have taken place in the past year and restores state price controls and lines at the shops, and laws prohibiting making money as ‘speculation,’ that will prolong the country’s misery,” said Chlenov.

“If that happens, it may have a positive effect on aliyah, driving younger and more energetic Jews to emigrate,” he said.

“Right now,” he explained, “the emigration is mostly limited to Jews living in areas of the ex-USSR troubled by ethnic violence and elderly Jews in the Slavic republics, whose lives have been made more difficult by inflation.”

Chlenov dismissed talk of a coup as “non-science fiction.” “The far right isn’t strong enough to mount a coup,” he said. “This is unrealistic.”

According to a source close to one of Yeltsin’s Cabinet ministers, Civic Union has made a secret alliance with the National Salvation Front, a coalition of nationalist groups banned by Yeltsin several weeks ago, to depose the Russian president.

“If that’s true,” said Chlenov, “the question then becomes who will hold power if they succeed. And if Civic Union takes power, they’ll dump the front.”

Civic Union is headed by industrialist Arkady Volsky and Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoi.

Yeltsin and Gaidar have wooed Civic Union in a number of meetings in recent weeks, but no compromise on the future of reform or the composition of the Cabinet has been publicly announced.

“If Yeltsin reaches an accommodation with Civic Union,” said Chlenov, “I don’t see any (anti-)Jewish accent to that. There may be a more pronounced Russian accent in policy, particularly vis-a-vis defending the Russian minority in the Baltic republics and elsewhere. But I don’t see any anti-Jewish content to that.”

Chlenov dismissed as “a mere fantasy” the possibility that Yeltsin might head off opposition in the congress by dissolving it and instituting direct presidential rule, even though Yeltsin himself has hinted several times in recent weeks that he might take such a step.

Yeltsin has been ruling with special powers granted to him by a previous congress last December, when his popularity was high in the wake of the failed Communist putsch of August 1991.

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