Yeltsin, Congress reach compromise in his favor

December 13, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Fifteen men went behind closed door yesterday, did some hard bargaining for several long hours, and emerged with a compromise that averts, for now at least, the climactic power struggle that was threatening Russia.

They then promptly rammed it through the Congress of People's Deputies without amendment and without discussion.

"Russia was robbed!" exclaimed Ilya Konstantinov, one of the leaders of the hard-line conservative National Salvation Front.

But he and his allies had been cut out of the deal-making, and there was little they could do about it.

President Boris N. Yeltsin gave up his idea of a referendum in which the Russian people could choose between him or the legislature. And he dismissed a key adviser, Gennady Burbulis, who is extremely unpopular in the Congress.

But overall he has in hand a compromise that leaves him with most of the advantages.

He will not lose any of his authority over the Cabinet. A procedure for choosing a prime minister -- which will take place tomorrow -- virtually assures that Mr. Yeltsin can continue with Yegor T. Gaidar if he wants to. This has been the most contentious issue at the Congress.

And a different referendum, on an entirely new constitution, is to be held April 11. That in turn will mean new elections, giving Mr. Yeltsin the likely opportunity to work with a legislature that has not been stacked in favor of the Communist Party.

"The people can live peacefully," Mr. Yeltsin said. "There will be no collisions, no coups."

Most importantly, the compromise will allow Mr. Yeltsin's economic reforms to proceed. It came just when Russia was on the brink of genuine turmoil. Conservatives in the Congress had seized their chance in this session, gathering enough votes to block Mr. Gaidar and call into question Mr. Yeltsin's authority.

The president had responded with a call to the people to choose once and for all between him and the Congress. That heightened tensions to the point that many deputies feared civil strife.

Each side accused the other of launching a backdoor coup.

Now the heat is turned lower. But if Mr. Yeltsin has emerged in the end with much of what he wanted in the short term, he has shown some weaknesses that could come back to haunt him.

He appeared to have lost control of the Congress, and even a new legislature may not be any more compliant. Several of his own allies saw the call for a referendum not as an effective bargaining ploy but as a blunder that would inevitably do Russia more harm than good.

He drew back from that idea yesterday, and the pivotal figure, as he has been throughout the Congress, was the speaker, Ruslan I. Khasbulatov.

Mr. Khasbulatov has been consistently critical of Mr. Gaidar, who has been acting prime minister, and other Cabinet members. The speaker was instrumental in cementing the hard-line opponents of the government with the large bloc of centrist deputies, thus creating a working majority in the Congress.

When the parliament seemingly reneged on a deal and defeated Mr. Gaidar's nomination as prime minister on Wednesday, Mr. Yeltsin's allies accused Mr. Khasbulatov of betraying the president.

But yesterday it was the hard-liners who were crying betrayal.

At 11 a.m. Mr. Yeltsin and six of his associates met with Mr. Khasbulatov and six parliamentary leaders -- none of them from the extreme opposition -- to work out a deal. Valery Zorkin, chairman of the Constitutional Court, was also present.

Mr. Khasbulatov started off by suggesting that Mr. Yeltsin should resign, the president said later. But then they got down to serious bargaining.

In the end they came up with a deal that averts the crisis by skirting around any showdowns. And it allows everyone in on the agreement to save some face.

At 4:30 p.m., Mr. Khasbulatov, Mr. Yeltsin and the others entered the Kremlin hall where the Congress meets. Mr. Zorkin read out the nine-point compromise. Mr. Khasbulatov called for an immediate vote, and it carried with 541 votes, 20 more than were needed. Ninety-eight deputies were against. The rest either abstained or weren't present.

While opposition deputies shouted in anger, Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Khasbulatov rose from their seats on the podium. They walked toward each other and shook hands. Then Mr. Yeltsin left the hall.

"I've known Khasbulatov a long time and I expected nothing else from him," spat out Mr. Konstantinov. "He'll get his share of the power."

The deal guarantees that there will be no changes in the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches until the new constitution goes into effect.

It nullifies several amendments the Congress had already passed that put limits on Mr. Yeltsin's authority. And it gives the president the upper hand in choosing a prime minister.

Under the compromise, the various factions of the Congress will each put up a candidate for prime minister tomorrow. The Congress will hold a straw vote and Mr. Yeltsin will then have to choose a nominee from among the top three vote-getters.

Mr. Gaidar, who received 467 votes in his favor on Wednesday, is almost certain to be among that group. The Congress then votes on the nominee, but if he is rejected Mr. Yeltsin can then name him as acting prime minister.

"This automatically means Gaidar," said Mr. Konstantinov. "That's all. It's simple."

In fact, Nikolai Travkin, a member of the parliamentary group that worked out the deal, said afterward he thinks Mr. Gaidar now stands a good chance of being confirmed outright.

Mr. Travkin, one of the leaders of the centrist bloc, argued that "the sound middle has won" with the agreement.

A number of delegates are still hoping to derail Mr. Gaidar, though, and some are pushing Aleksandr Rutskoi, the vice president who is often openly critical of the Cabinet, as prime minister.

But there seems to be little reason, from Mr. Yeltsin's perspective, to ditch the 36-year-old leader of his Cabinet.

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