Yeltsin stands by reforms Russian Congress set for showdown

November 30, 1992|By Serge Schmemann | Serge Schmemann,New York Times News Service

MOSCOW -- Like a general rallying his troops on the eve o battle, President Boris N. Yeltsin told his supporters yesterday that the reforms he had introduced were "the main cause of my entire life" and that he would remain committed to those policies, "whatever turn things may take."

On the other side of the city, outside the gates to Gorky Park, several hundred die-hard Communists braved arctic temperatures at a rally of their own, waving red flags and a banner that reduced the approaching clash to its bare bones: "Lenin Yes! Yeltsin No!"

Elsewhere across Moscow, lights burned late into the night as the other combatants plotted their final moves before 1,041 lawmakers gather tomorrow in the Kremlin for the Seventh Congress of People's Deputies.

As if it were determined not to limit the fray to the executive and legislative branches, the Constitutional Court announced that it would rule today in the six-month hearing on the legality of Communist Party.

Although the verdict is expected to go against the party, its phrasing is certain to play a major role in the struggles in the Congress.

Everyone involved has awaited the Congress with some dread, if only for the dreary speeches and a maddening absence of discipline. In the absence of organized parties, procedures, separation of powers or even a rudimentary consensus on the economic or political future of Russia, the Congress has met less shape law than to brawl over privilege.

The preliminary clashes have reverberated across Moscow. The hard-core opponents of capitalist and democratic change formed a National Salvation Front and demanded Mr. Yeltsin's ouster.

The centrist bloc of state-industry bosses and "Russia First" patriots leaned on the government to slow the transition to a market economy and share its powers. Mr. Yeltsin hinted alternately at a state of emergency and a compromise with the opposition.

But in the end, the president invoked his standing as the one official elected by all of Russia and declared to an auditorium full of ardent supporters that he would not depart from his policies.

"Let those who dream about that know it is not my rule to depart from the main cause of my entire life, the more so as I have a blessing from the citizens of Russia who elected me their president," Mr. Yeltsin declared. "I have received the highest mandate for the carrying out of reforms, and I shall remain committed to this policy, whatever turn things may take."

He praised Acting Prime Minister Yegor T. Gaidar and his team, the architects of the economic changes, as "exceptionally competent and exceptionally educated."

But the fine print also left room for maneuver: Mr. Yeltsin said that it was essential for the sake of stability to forgo "maximalist ideas and phrases" and that "striving for peace and compromise is not a sign of weakness."

In a significant shift in his political strategy, Mr. Yeltsin also announced that he was forming a political party for supporters of his policies. He had previously argued that, as a nationally elected president, he was above such politics.

But his opponents have formed organized coalitions, most notably the centrist Civic Union, and his own support has splintered because of a lack of leadership.

Mr. Yeltsin's supporters are expected to be in a distinct minority at the Congress, providing little more than 20 percent of the vote on any issue.

The majority of lawmakers are Communists. Thus, nearly a year after the Soviet Union's demise, the harbingers of Russia's democracy actually are the last holdovers of the old order, a club of ham-fisted commissars and state-farm directors who sprawl in their seats with the habitual haughtiness of the old apparatchik.

Although the lawmakers originally elected Mr. Yeltsin as speaker, enabling him to make his comeback in politics, they did so only because of his indisputable popularity. Where possible, they have been prone to resist any forward movement -- even keeping the old hammer and sickle as the official symbol and refusing to adopt a new oath to Russia.

The deputies have blocked adoption of a new constitution and have failed to establish a legal base for free markets, all the while supporting the current speaker, Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, in trying to expand their power.

Not surprisingly, the legislature is little respected. A recent poll of young Muscovites found that only 5 percent viewed its work positively; 34 percent rated it "bad" and another 31 percent "very bad."

Mr. Yeltsin's strength is that while he commands only a minority of votes, he wields greater real power, in part because of his decree-issuing authority and in part because he remains the only leader recognized by a majority of the public.

The deputies know that in a showdown, he could probably dissolve the legislature, and most believe he would do so. Few expect such a showdown. Most commentators agree that Mr. Gaidar and his team are likely to survive, although not without some wounds, and that Mr. Yeltsin will get an extension on his extraordinary powers.

But in the caldron of the Congress, anything is possible.

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