Yeltsin calls for new constitution with wide powers for himself

July 30, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- President Boris N. Yeltsin wants a new Russian constitution that will grant him sweeping powers and eliminate outright the usually unfriendly Congress of People's Deputies.

If he doesn't get his way, he told a Constitution Commission meeting in the Kremlin yesterday, he will go over the legislators' heads and call for a national referendum by next year.

Mr. Yeltsin has found himself constantly under attack in the standing parliament and particularly in its parent body, the Congress. Elected before the rout of the Communist Party last August, both bodies are filled with former party officials and others hostile to economic reform.

They have regularly frustrated his attempts to move toward a free-market economy.

Mr. Yeltsin proposed yesterday that the new constitution give him the authority to rule by decree -- a power he now holds under a temporary emergency measure -- and to appoint his own people both in the central government and in Russia's provinces without legislative oversight.

"I am strongly against any dictatorship, but I'm a supporter of a strong democratic state," he said.

The Congress itself would have to approve such a constitution, which would leave the smaller parliament, or Supreme Soviet, intact. Alternatively, if Mr. Yeltsin can muster a million signatures, he can put his proposal to a referendum.

Ruslan Khasbulatov, the speaker of the parliament, said a referendum would be "unconstitutional and anti-popular."

Some of the president's own aides reportedly worried that he might not prevail if a referendum were to be held.

"I am sure the new constitution, consolidating democracy, will be supported and adopted by the people," Mr. Yeltsin said yesterday.

Clearly, though, the momentum has gone out of Mr. Yeltsin's efforts since the spring.

The parliament forced his government to back down from a decision to free oil and gas prices, it impeded privatization and it is standing in the way of private land ownership.

Mr. Yeltsin's most recent fight with legislators concerned the newspaper Izvestia, which under Communist rule was the official newspaper of the Supreme Soviet. Angered by its support for reform, the parliament placed the paper directly under its control two weeks ago.

Mr. Yeltsin objected, the parliament snubbed him and then went on vacation. But it failed to carry out its decree, leaving Izvestia in fact as independent as it has been.

It was a victory of sorts for the president, but such draining battles do little to inspire much confidence among a population beset by growing doubts over the nation's future.

At the same time, the managers of the giant state industrial enterprises have been organizing themselves and bringing pressure on Mr. Yeltsin to slow down reforms -- with some success so far. A month ago Mr. Yeltsin brought two members of their group into his government as ministers.

This in turn has led to infighting among the democrats, and at a meeting last weekend one group turned its fire on Mr. Yeltsin.

"The political situation in Russia," the Radical Democrats said in a statement, "is characterized by the emergence of a right-wing opposition to the course of radical democratic transformations and by further deviation from this course by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the present Russian government."

Seeking to bring his government out of a stall, Mr. Yeltsin yesterday insisted that he needed the ability to act directly.

One of his key proposals would enable him to place representatives in cities and regions throughout the country. Generally, opposition to his programs is strongest outside Moscow and St. Petersburg.

This is particularly true among both the managers and the workers of the huge old inefficient factories which have been hobbled by a cash shortage, and which under true economic reform would be quickly forced to shut down.

Still, Mr. Yeltsin enjoys a large measure of good will. Grigori S. Khizha, one of the industrial managers brought into the government, noted that Russians' trust in Mr. Yeltsin is virtually the only thing holding the country together -- and that could make it easier for him to prevail on a new constitution.

The Congress of People's Deputies, which he seeks to abolish, is a legislature of about 1,000 that meets twice a year and has vast authority under the current constitution, which was written when Leonid I. Brezhnev was in power.

The Congress, divided as it is, doesn't use that authority effectively, but at its last session in April it nearly brought Mr. Yeltsin's government down.

It enjoys very little support among the population.

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