Yeltsin ekes out win in legislature Conservative foes fail in challenge to president's power

December 06, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- By the most precarious of margins, President Boris N. Yeltsin yesterday staved off constitutional amendments that would have given the Communist-dominated Russian legislature new strength at his expense.

On the most important measure -- one that would have required him to get the Parliament's approval for his Cabinet appointments -- his foes fell just four votes short in the 1,040-member Congress of People's Deputies.

They needed at least two-thirds of the total number of deputies, or 694 votes, to pass the amendment, and they came up with 690.

On another, somewhat less important amendment, there were 693 votes in favor -- one shy of passage.

The votes leave Russia's Cabinet and reform program intact, for now, although the Congress will continue to meet this week.

The votes came after four days of vituperative debate in the country's supreme legislative body, which is dominated by conservative opponents of the Russian government's reform program. The anti-reform forces have seemed stronger in this session than at any time since the failed coup of August 1991. But so far, they have been unable to consolidate their strength and achieve any significant results.

Still, the government's hold on power is shaky. Tomorrow, the Congress is scheduled to debate Mr. Yeltsin's nomination of Yegor T. Gaidar, the chief of the economic program and a man who is disliked by many in the Congress, as prime minister. Until now, Mr. Gaidar has filled that post on an acting basis.

"I would not like to be in his shoes on Monday," said an angry Sergei Baburin, a leader of the opposition.

The Congress did pass two constitutional amendments yesterday, declaring that government ministries are accountable to both the president and the Congress. Mr. Yeltsin's allies argued that these amendments were not as significant as those that failed.

The Congress also passed a land-ownership provision that was supported by the government but that has so many qualifications that its impact is unlikely to be sweeping.

Ruslan Khasbulatov, the speaker of the Congress, said Mr. Yeltsin's forces, who have become a small minority within the body, scored a Pyrrhic victory. Any more such victories, he said, "will destroy the country."

"The whole country has lost, not just the Parliament," said Ilya Konstantinov, one of the leaders of the extreme National Salvation Front.

Aleksandr Shokhin, a member of the Cabinet, called the votes "a victory for democracy."

Sergei Yushenkov, a leader of the democratic reform bloc, acknowledged after the vote yesterday that the government needs to find ways to strengthen itself politically.

"Of course we need compromises now," he said. "But if it's a compromise with the Communists, I'm against it. If it's a compromise between one variant of democratic reform and a more radical one, then I'm for it."

The votes capped a 36-hour period of intense maneuvering and heady rumor-mongering. Conservatives won a bid Thursday to vote on the amendments by secret ballot, which led to a fistfight on the floor of the Congress. The voting was put off three times Friday. Mr. Yeltsin was reported to be meeting with leaders of the centrist opposition. Then he was reported to be preparing a nationwide televised appeal. His aides suggested that he might seek to dissolve the Congress.

Yesterday, both sides worked to shore up their positions. Absentee ballots were even solicited from the nine deputies who have been hospitalized since the session began Tuesday (none because of the fistfight).

The Kremlin was closed to reporters until 5 p.m., as the Congress voted, counted and deliberated. When the Congress at last went into public session again, Mr. Yeltsin was nowhere to be seen. It seemed evident in the end that no major deal had been reached, judging by the eyelash-thin margin by which the president managed to carry the day.

"The bout has been postponed until spring," when the Congress will hold its next session, said Vladimir Novikov, one of the deputies. "There are no victors today."

Mr. Yeltsin's main task now is to keep his government's reform program moving. Sergei Stankevich, one of his aides, said late yesterday that he believed Mr. Gaidar's chances of becoming full prime minister are "50-50." Mr. Shokhin said he believed the deputies will be aroused against the government by yesterday's voting and will be less likely to approve Mr. Gaidar.

Mr. Yeltsin's weakness in the Congress, which was elected in 1990, in the old Soviet era, may stem partly from his attempts to place himself above politics. Mr. Yeltsin has not joined any party or faction -- but now seems to have no organization behind him.

His opponents have accused him, with some accuracy, of relying solely on an inner circle of aides, and have advanced that as one reason why the Parliament should take a stronger measure of control.

Pavel Boschonov, once Mr. Yeltsin's press secretary, wrote in yesterday's Komsomolskaya Pravda, "It is not an influential political force that is at the helm of the Russian state but a group, or rather a clan, of politicians knocked together" on the basis of a Soviet-era sense of loyalty.

Mr. Yeltsin, perhaps recognizing this weakness, announced last Sunday that he planned to lead a new political party. The announcement was clearly a warning shot aimed at his opponents in the Congress -- but the party itself will come too late to help him this time around.

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