Yeltsin defies Gorbachev over special powers

September 23, 1990|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- In a direct confrontation with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Boris N. Yeltsin and the leadership of the Russian Federation officially warned the Soviet parliament yesterday not to grant the emergency powers requested by Mr. Gorbachev.

In an emotional speech Friday, Mr. Gorbachev asked for the power to override existing law in connection with the planned transition to a market economy.

But Russian Federation officials, citing Mr. Gorbachev's statement that he might have to dissolve some elected bodies, expressed fear that he could use special powers to dissolve the Russian parliament and impose direct presidential rule in the largest of the 15 Soviet republics.

"Of course he had in mind the Russian parliament," Nikolai I. Travkin, a deputy to both the national and Russian parliaments, told Russian legislators.

Russian deputy and legal expert Sergei M. Shakhrai told his colleagues: "If direct presidential rule is imposed for the Russian Federation, for us that will mean the dissolution of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation."

The Russian Supreme Soviet, or parliament, discussed the wording of a warning on Mr. Gorbachev's request for emergency powers but lacked the quorum to pass it. As a result, the warning was issued last night in a statement from the presidium of the Russian Supreme Soviet, which is chaired by Mr. Yeltsin.

Mr. Yeltsin signed the statement after leaving a Moscow hospital where he had been under observation after suffering a mild concussion in a car accident Friday. He complained that he was having trouble with his vision but promised to be up to full strength soon.

The Russian leadership's statement called the emergency powers requested by Mr. Gorbachev "impermissible."

If the powers are nonetheless granted, the statement continued, the Russian leadership "will take all necessary measures to protect the sovereignty and the constitutional system of the Russian Federation."

The clash is the latest, and potentially most serious, of several conflicts between Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin since the latter assumed the Russian presidency in May.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators and the Russian parliament have demanded the resignation of the government of Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai I. Ryzhkov. Much of the nation's harvest lies rotting in the fields, as officials try to mobilize soldiers, students and factory workers to bring it in. Many Muscovites say food stores, usually decently supplied at this time of year, are emptier now than at any time in recent years.

Because the Russian Federation accounts for just over half the Soviet population and two-thirds of Soviet territory, the overlapping responsibility of the Russian and Soviet leadership inevitably creates conflicts. Moreover, Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin have a complex personal relationship, appearing to be allies in the reformist cause one day and rivals for power the next.

Their earlier conflicts, over the banking system, over control of oil, gold and other natural wealth on Russian territory and over plans for economic reform, were resolved after a five-hour meeting of the two men last month.

The latest clash may prove harder to smooth over. Mr. Gorbachev appeared angry and determined in his speech Friday, and he clearly believes that firm central control is a necessary precondition for economic reform.

"It was the first time I'd ever seen the president in such an excited state," Mr. Travkin remarked yesterday. "And it seemed to me that I was seeing for the first time a fully candid president."

Yet Mr. Yeltsin has been unwavering in his defense of both Russian sovereignty and the country's newborn democracy. His popularity is unquestionably greater than Mr. Gorbachev's at the moment, and a prolonged confrontation could seriously undermine Mr. Gorbachev's political standing.

The Russian statement, in addition to warning Mr. Gorbachev that he should not assume the emergency powers, suggested that the Soviet president, the Soviet parliament and officials of all 15 republics should "urgently work out and adopt coordinated measures for the stabilization of the economic and political situation in the country, based on mutual recognition of the sovereignty and constitutional system in each of the republics."

The powers Mr. Gorbachev is requesting are vaguely defined, which has led to considerable confusion in deputies' debate.

The draft decree discussed Friday by the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet appears to give the president the right to override existing law and make new law, as long as the measures are related to the economy and do not contradict the Soviet Constitution. The Supreme Soviet would have the right to cancel any act of the president with which it disagreed.

Deputies tied the emergency powers request with the question of dissolving parliaments because Mr. Gorbachev raised the possibility Friday that he would "have to take action and impose presidential rule and stop the activity of all organs, including elective ones."

He added for emphasis: "We've reached the situation where if we have to do that, we will."

Most deputies of the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet appeared ready to approve the additional powers Friday, but again too many deputies had left to permit a quorum. Mr. Travkin predicted that the special powers would be approved tomorrow.

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