Russian congress fails to approve Yeltsin's plan for directly elected presidency

March 30, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Communist opponents of Boris N. Yeltsin yesterday blocked for now the establishment of a directly elected Russian Federation presidency despite the strong popular endorsement of such a post in this month's referendum.

The republic's Congress of People's Deputies voted 508-420 in favor of adding "realization of the results of the referendum" to its agenda, and later 456-447 to discuss the creation of a presidency, for which Mr. Yeltsin would be the leading candidate. Both votes fell short of the 531 votes needed for the required half of all deputies.

A leader of the coal miners' strike, Vyacheslav Golikov, ominously warned the congress that by "ignoring the will of the people," it risked the wrath of workers who overwhelmingly support Mr. Yeltsin, the parliament's chairman. About 70 percent of Russians participating in the March 17 referendum voted in favor of the presidency.

Mr. Yeltsin, meanwhile, delivered a major speech laying out a program of radical and political change designed to free Russia from Communist ideology and the Soviet ministerial bureaucracy.

"Why has a country richly endowed with natural resources, which was developing dynamically at the start of the century, reached the very edge of the abyss?" he asked nearly 1,000 deputies meeting in the Grand Kremlin Palace, "Why is a people numbering many millions, with a great culture and the richest of traditions, today experiencing a spiritual crisis and a lack of faith?"

Mr. Yeltsin, an ex-Communist turned zealous anti-Communist, placed the blame on the still-powerful grip of the party on many aspects of Russian life.

He outlined his alternative vision to the present Soviet Union -- a de-ideologized, voluntary commonwealth of states that would allow legal secession and leave political and economic power in each republic.

But he also called for all political forces to hold round-table talks aimed at forming a "coalition government of popular trust and national consensus" for the Soviet Union.

The speech, while uncompromising in its condemnation of Communist totalitarianism, was far more constructive in tone than several recent speeches by the Russian leader.

The 90-minute speech amounted to a blueprint for the logical continuation of reforms begun by Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Mr. Yeltsin's chief political rival. It even borrowed considerably from the language of Mr. Gorbachev's earlier speeches.

In recent months, Mr. Gorbachev has limited or abandoned many of the key elements in his program of perestroika, or restructuring, including freedom of the press, the development of free enterprise, the end of the Communist Party's monopoly on power and the avoidance of military force in political disputes.

Partly as a result, Mr. Yeltsin, 60, has emerged increasingly as the standard-bearer of reform in the Soviet Union. His sometimes abrasive, populist style bothers some intellectuals, but his broad popularity survives nearly intact despite the deep economic crisis and general disillusionment with politicians.

Mr. Gorbachev's perestroika, Mr. Yeltsin said, had turned out to be not restructuring at all but rather "the last stage of the period of stagnation," the term applied to the 18-year rule of Leonid I. Brezhnev.

On Thursday, Mr. Gorbachev deployed 50,000 police and troops to prevent what turned out to be not many more than 50,000 peaceful pro-Yeltsin demonstrators from reaching the square next to the Kremlin.

Trying to justify the massive show of force, which was condemned by the Russian congress, Soviet Internal Affairs Minister Boris K. Pugo could do no better yesterday than to say that the crowd included some drunken youths and a ninth-grader carrying a homemade pistol.

Yesterday, as Mr. Yeltsin delivered his speech, Mr. Gorbachev was televised attending the first All-Army Communist Party Conference, a gathering of about 1,000 representatives of the 1 million Communist Party members in the armed forces.

Hard-line Communist deputies to the Russian congress are under heavy pressure from the party apparatus, headed by Mr. Gorbachev, to block Mr. Yeltsin's path to an elective presidency. Such an election would greatly strengthen Mr. Yeltsin's political hand and underscore the contrast between the Russian leader, who has won two hard-fought parliamentary elections, and Mr. Gorbachev, who has never dared run for office.

Tomorrow, following an answering speech from one of Mr. Yeltsin's bitterest political opponents, the Communists are expected to make their strongest move against Mr. Yeltsin. Given the array of forces, however, there seems little chance that they can realize their original goal of removing him from the Russia Federation leadership.

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