Yeltsin, hard-line Congress in showdown today

March 10, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Today the fight picks up again.

President Boris N. Yeltsin and the hostile and unpredictable Congress of People's Deputies are heading for another wrangle, each hoping to win the fight for power that broke off after a protracted and inconclusive session of the Congress in December.

Once more, Mr. Yeltsin's government and his reform program are on the line to a degree that has President Clinton and other world leaders greatly concerned. Once more, conservatives in the Communist-dominated legislature are seeking to strip him of his authority.

The session of the Congress that opens today in the Kremlin could bring about a major shift of power in Moscow -- some predict that Mr. Yeltsin's leadership of Russia is at stake, although others recall that he has built his career by fighting back from oblivion and defeat.

And the results of course might be less dramatic -- but could nonetheless set the stage for continued infighting and political paralysis that over the long run would inflict a heavy toll on the Russian economy and on attempts to build a stable democratic system.

Mr. Yeltsin met yesterday with a broad range of local officials and members of the Congress, setting a conciliatory tone. But his opponents -- including the congressional speaker, Ruslan Khasbulatov -- dismissed his proposals out of hand.

"This is not something to take seriously," Mr. Khasbulatov said of Mr. Yeltsin's suggestions for compromise.

The context for this session of the Congress -- the first since the December deadlock -- is already hopelessly muddled.

Its outward purpose is to decide whether to hold a referendum in April on the question of presidential vs. parliamentary power under a new constitution.

Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Khasbulatov ended the difficult and fractious December session by agreeing to schedule such a referendum, but Mr. Khasbulatov wasted little time attacking the idea and now Mr. Yeltsin, for reasons of his own, is also backing off.

Regional leaders have warned that the referendum could provide the opportunity for Russia's autonomous ethnic republics and districts to try to break free of Moscow altogether.

Yesterday, Mr. Yeltsin offered to drop the referendum if the Congress would allow his Cabinet to pursue economic reform unhindered through 1994, but his opponents want more.

They want to assert the dominance of the legislature under the Soviet-era constitution that still prevails here.

Mr. Yeltsin has declared repeatedly that that is unacceptable to him, and the result since December has been a period of `D maneuvering, scheming, blustering and bluffing that has eaten away at public confidence in Russia's newborn political system.

The Congress is officially supposed to meet for just one day, although few expect it to be over that quickly. On the other hand, Mr. Yeltsin suggested yesterday that the Congress could ratify the existing authority of the Cabinet, agree not to hold a referendum and be done by lunchtime.

Mr. Yeltsin currently commands the support of only about 20 percent of the 1,040 deputies who are members of the Congress, Russia's highest legislative body. But up to now leaders of the conservative forces have been unable to act in concert and force the president's hand.

They did succeed in December in forcing out Yegor Gaidar as prime minister. But his replacement, Viktor Chernomyrdin, has if anything been even more rigorous in pursuing free-market reforms.

If there is an ideological issue that separates Mr. Yeltsin and the Congress, it has to do with private property -- a taboo of the first order under communism. Mr. Yeltsin is in favor of it, and has been for the past two years. If there should be a referendum, he wants a question about private property to be a part of it.

His opponents are, by varying degrees, uncomfortable, unknowledgeable or downright hostile to the whole idea.

And if there is a practical issue separating the contending sides, it has to do with who controls the bank. Russia's Central Bank is currently under the sway of the Supreme Soviet (the smaller, workaday Parliament named by the Congress) and has issued trillions of rubles to keep state-owned factories going.

A good number of the deputies in Congress have links to those factories. As a direct result, though, Russia has gone through ruinous inflation.

Mr. Yeltsin would dearly love to get the bank under the control of the Cabinet.

But many here, including some in the opposition, see the battle as one between a president with a goal -- free- market reform -- and a legislature full of careerists intent on keeping their positions and power and not particularly bothered by philosophical urges.

Mr. Khasbulatov epitomizes that characterization, in this view, and despite his power over the Congress he appears to have little chance of gaining a leadership role if Mr. Yeltsin should be brought down.

Vladimir Isakov, leader of the opposition Russian Unity bloc, said recently in an interview in the independent weekly Argumenti i Fakti, "Khasbulatov is engaged in very intricate and cunning political games, having swapped camps and turned from an ally of the president into his adversary. But so far I do not see him turning into an ally of Russia."

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