MOSCOW -- President Boris N. Yeltsin demanded more power yesterday at the opening of the Russian Congress and he probably won't get it.
But opponents who had hoped to cripple his government, perhaps overturn it, put two crucial questions up to a vote first thing yesterday and lost them both.
One concerned the constitutionality of Mr. Yeltsin's authority; the other would have set in motion a vote of no confidence in his Cabinet.
This still leaves the anxiously awaited Seventh Congress of People's Deputies with plenty to wrangle over. The fate of Mr. Yeltsin's acting prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, the architect of many of the most painful economic policies, is just one issue to be decided.
But the truly fundamental questions about Russia's course toward a market economy are not now on the agenda.
This session of the Congress pits democrats allied with Mr. Yeltsin against the overwhelmingly conservative members of the supreme legislature at a decisive moment in the course of the reforms away from a Communist economy. With inflation running high, and industrial production still declining, Mr. Yeltsin's handling of the economy is growing increasingly unpopular.
Plenty of unkind words flowed throughout the day yesterday. Plenty of stark pictures were painted. More than 1,000 delegates from across Russia converged on the Kremlin, in bitter cold, for the semi-annual session of Russia's most powerful legislative body, and as they swept past demonstrators of various political hues they weren't in a kindly mood.
But Ruslan Khasbulatov, the troublesome speaker of the Congress, may have uttered the most accurate analysis on the day's events and the prospects for the remainder of the session: There is no other government to support and the state of affairs, he said, "dooms us to cooperation."
Battle lines were drawn, naturally, and there must eventually be winners and losers. The key issue that emerged yesterday is whether the legislature will have the power to confirm appointments to Mr. Yeltsin's Cabinet, which it does not now have.
Mr. Yeltsin opposes the idea. He wants to take power away from the legislature during a period of "stabilization." He may not prevail. Even his allies concede that a loss wouldn't be the end of democracy or market reforms.
The president spoke shortly after the session opened. He was conciliatory for a few minutes and then got down to business.
Too many legislators, he said, are concerned only with their careers or with acquiring power. The regular parliament, or Supreme Soviet, is trying to wrest powers from the Cabinet that it shouldn't have, he said. There's an unwillingness in the legislature, he said, to look for compromise. There's no mutual understanding. He said Russia needs a break from political intrigue and demanded a transitional period of 12-18 months in which the Congress would only worry about changes to the constitution while he took sole responsibility for economic reform.
If the Congress agreed to that, and to postpone legislative oversight of the Cabinet, he said, then he would be willing to give up his power to rule by decree.
Mr. Yeltsin said the reform program needs more time to work. There have been mistakes, he said, but already there are some encouraging signs in the economy. Still, he said, inflation and the fall-off in production remain as serious problems.
"The house is still being built and it is surrounded by scaffolding, piles of trash and building materials," he said. "But it would be a big mistake to look at the results so far and say that this is the final outcome."
The legislators seemed unimpressed by the arguments for more power. "He has put an end to himself as a democratic president," said Nikolai Pavlov, of the extreme National Salvation Front. "It means another authoritarian regime in Russia."
"For the majority of the deputies, those points are impossible to digest," said Vassily Lipitsky, of the much more important Civic Union. A stabilization period is a fine idea, he said, but the deputies are very unlikely to give up any power.
In fact, he argued, legislative oversight of the Cabinet would provide some assurance that government programs are actually carried out, because they would have a broader constituency. This same point was made in a speech by Mr. Khasbulatov, the speaker. He said Mr. Yeltsin could get along quite well without extraordinary powers.
Sergei Yushenkov, a Yeltsin ally, conceded that even democrats find it hard to argue against a parliamentary role in appointments.
"The president offered something that's impossible in order in the end to obtain something that's quite possible," he suggested compromises, in other words, on such other issues as private land ownership or the deadlines under which the parliament must act.
The Congress did agree to discuss the status of the prime minister. Currently, Mr. Gaidar is acting prime minister, having been appointed by Mr. Yeltsin without parliament's approval.
If the Congress refuses to confirm him in the position, he could remain for up to three months as acting prime minister, and then be reappointed over and over again.
It is outcomes like that that depress strong critics like Mr. Pavlov. "I expect nothing from this Congress," he said. "The deputies are incapable of making decisions."