Setback is a preview of Yeltsin's constitutional fight

June 04, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- As Russia prepares to thrash out a new constitution, President Boris N. Yeltsin suffered a defeat under the old one yesterday.

The nation's Constitutional Court ruled that the parliament of Mordovia, one of Russia's 16 autonomous republics, was within its rights to abolish the republic's presidency.

And, the court ruled, President Yeltsin's decree upholding the presidency in Mordovia was unconstitutional.

Mordovia, a region of 1 million people 300 miles east of Moscow, has been fighting out in microcosm the battle that faces Russia: Where will the power lie, with the president or the legislature?

This struggle has been the source of political chaos in Moscow over the last months as Mr. Yeltsin has grappled for power with the national legislature, the Congress of People's Deputies, under the leadership of Ruslan Khasbulatov.

Mr. Yeltsin hopes to put the question to rest once and for all with a new constitution he is submitting to a constitutional assembly that he is convening tomorrow.

His draft constitution would give the president broad powers in a republic similar to France's. He would appoint the government and have power to dissolve the legislature. The constitution also would guarantee the right to private property.

Of course, the parliament has its own version of a constitution -- with a legislature that would exert more control over the president than Mr. Yeltsin envisions. An alliance of Communist and nationalist groups promises to submit yet a third version. Thus all the forces necessary to prolong rather than resolve the political turmoil appear to be gathering.

Mr. Yeltsin and the parliament have been at each other's throats for months in a paralyzing struggle for power. A national referendum April 25, in which a majority of voters expressed confidence in Mr. Yeltsin, failed to stop the legislature's attack on the president and may only have prepared the groundwork for an ever-grander battle over the constitution.

Mr. Yeltsin has been ignoring the parliament lately in favor of trying to persuade local politicians that his constitution would offer them more freedom than they would get from the parliament-sponsored version. And in the last few days, Mr. Khasbulatov and his allies have shown signs of weakness.

Mr. Yeltsin has invited four delegates from each of Russia's 88 administrative subdivisions, along with representatives of political parties, religious groups and business and industrial organizations, to meet in the Kremlin from tomorrow until June 16. More than 700 representatives are expected at the constitutional assembly.

Yesterday, the parliament appointed Mr. Khasbulatov to attend as its representative.

The crafters of a new constitution face an enormous task -- trying to impose a system of law on a nation that has known law only as czarist whim or Communist fiat.

And this in a vast territory, spread over 11 time zones and peopled by numerous ethnic groups, trying to adjust to cataclysmic economic and political change.

More questions are being raised than answered -- including whether a new constitution would be voted on by the legislature or at referendum.

"Work will be tough," Mr. Yeltsin said yesterday. according to the Interfax news agency. "What is most important for us is that we should try to make it productive and avoid rhetoric, typical of past Congresses."

In an effort to shore up the principle of strong executive power across Russia, President Yeltsin had backed the president of Mordovia in his fight with the local legislature.

The president, Vasily Guslyannikov, had remained in office, ignoring the parliament, which abolished the presidency in early April.

Yesterday, speaking by telephone from the Mordovian capital of Saransk, Mr. Guslyannikov said he wasn't ready to give up yet.

"Politics has prevailed over law," he said, adding that he planned to challenge the ruling.

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