Yeltsin in peril of losing power Parliament likely to weaken presidency

March 12, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- President Boris N. Yeltsin was driven against the ropes yesterday after his emboldened opponents in the Congress of People's Deputies dealt him a pair of punishing blows.

They rejected outright his offer of a compromise to settle the political crisis here, and prepared a plan of their own that would bite deeply both into his legal authority and into his clout as a politician.

The Congress was scheduled to vote on that plan today.

As of last night there seemed little chance that the rift could close between Mr. Yeltsin and the legislature empowered before the fall of the Communist Party and driven to resentment and anxiety by the cost of Mr. Yeltsin's moves toward a market economy.

"The future is very dark, to be honest," said Oleg Rumyantsev, a centrist deputy.

Under the proposal presented to the Congress, Mr. Yeltsin's key Cabinet officers would serve at the pleasure of the legislature, and he would be unable to issue decrees without parliamentary endorsement.

Mr. Yeltsin warned the Congress not to approve the plan.

"If you disrupt the presidency," he said, "you would wreck Russia."

The measures weakening the presidency were originally approved by the Congress in December but were put aside in a compromise deal that has now been cast aside again by its speaker, Ruslan Khasbulatov.

If enacted, they would leave Mr. Yeltsin as more than simply a figurehead -- despite protests to the contrary by some of the small band of democratic reformers in the Congress -- but his role would be diminished.

Most important, it would probably continue to diminish as time went on.

In addition, a scheduled referendum on a new constitution would be scrapped.

But Mr. Yeltsin, who angrily walked out of the Congress yesterday afternoon, is not one to give up. There could still be a deal.

Barring that, he said yesterday, he may go ahead and seek a referendum anyway, despite the disapproval of the Congress.

Mr. Yeltsin also has left open the possibility of assuming direct presidential rule.

Yesterday, when he walked into the congressional hall in the Great Kremlin Palace, he pointedly shook hands with the defense minister, the security minister and the interior minister, whose agencies' support he would need in such a move.

He apparently also asked German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to canvass Western leaders on their reaction to an emergency decree.

His allies in the Congress, though, say they are sure Mr. Yeltsin is not actually contemplating a military move.

Knowledgeable Western sources in Moscow say they are unaware of any unusual Russian army activity.

And mid-level Russian officers who would be among the first to know said last night they had not been placed on alert or warned that they might be.

Whatever today might bring, Mr. Yeltsin's opponents carried yesterday for themselves.

Mikhail Chelnokov demanded that the Congress throw Mr. Yeltsin out of office (which prompted his walkout).

Mr. Khasbulatov delivered a slashing speech in which he derided Mr. Yeltsin's "petty" attempts at reaching a compromise and belittled Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Mr. Chernomyrdin has been in office only since December, when he took over in a deal between Mr. Yeltsin and the parliament.

Even the usually sober-minded Valery Zorkin, chairman of the Constitutional Court, took to the podium and criticized Mr. Yeltsin for banning the recently formed hard-line National Salvation Front and for not doing enough to fight corruption that is undermining economic advances.

Mr. Khasbulatov initially presented the plan to cut Mr. Yeltsin's power as a compromise to which the president had agreed, and then refused to let Mr. Yeltsin's aides have the floor so that they could explain that this was not true.

The plan given preliminary approval yesterday was similar to one rejected by the Congress Wednesday.

It did contain one concession to Mr. Yeltsin -- moving several important financial institutions from parliamentary to Cabinet control. The most important financial entity -- the central bank -- would essentially report to both.

Mr. Yeltsin himself had begun the day by giving a dispirited address to the Congress. He looked even then like a beaten man. His enunciation was ragged and the speech was interspersed with several long pauses.

"The Congress must choose between accord and confrontation," said. But, he acknowledged, "there remain fewer and fewer possibilities for reaching accord."

He defended his role as president, noting that he is the only official to have been elected by the entire nation. The parliament was elected under the old Soviet system before it collapsed.

"The government needs the president particularly in such difficult times as these," Mr. Yeltsin said. "The trust expressed by the electorate enables the president and no one else to take tough but necessary measures. No reform can do without them."

Mr. Yeltsin said he was open to any reasonable compromise. The Congress voted soon after to disregard his offer.

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