Russian hard-liners fail to strip president's power


MOSCOW -- A move to strip President Boris N. Yeltsin of most of his powers went down to a surprisingly easy defeat at the opening of Russia's Congress yesterday, but his allies snorted with disdain when asked if they had scored a key victory.

"A victory? It's a total jumble," said Sergei Shakhrai, one of the president's advisers.

The Congress, heavy with ex-Communists implacably hostile to Mr. Yeltsin, began an emergency session yesterday marked by stinging speech-making, impossible proposals, and a growing feeling that neither Mr. Yeltsin nor his rival, Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, is in control.

The ostensible purpose of the Congress is to decide whether to hold a referendum April 11 so that Russians may choose a presidential or parliamentary republic, but the real contest is over power, and the referendum has become merely an object of that contest.

Virtually no one saw yesterday's vote on the move to snatch power away from Mr. Yeltsin as the last word on the subject.

The first word came from Nikolai Ryabov, the deputy parliament chairman, who accused Mr. Yeltsin early in the day of trying to seize all power. There were several calls for the president to resign. Dozens of deputies said the Congress should assert its primacy over the Cabinet and president.

That led Vyacheslav Kostikov, a spokesman for Mr. Yeltsin, to remark that "the Congress is pushing the president to deep and tragic meditation as to what decisions he will have to make for saving reforms and democracy."

And that in turn prompted Vladimir Isakov, a leader of the opposition, to accuse Mr. Yeltsin of indulging in threats as a way of bargaining from a weak position. "But if he takes one step to act on those threats," Mr. Isakov said, "it will be the death of the president."

Toward the end of the day, Mr. Yeltsin said he would be willing to scrap the referendum if he and the Congress could work out a permanent division of power. He proposed, toward that end, that everything remain the same, except that the Central Bank and other financial institutions be shifted under his control.

He then acknowledged that the Congress would never go for such a deal.

At the same time the leaders of the Congress had presented a resolution that would eliminate the referendum and take most of the control of the Cabinet out of Mr. Yeltsin's hands.

But on a first reading, when such proposals generally sail through, the resolution gained just over 400 votes, out of 689 needed for passage.

Mr. Khasbulatov's face smoldered with anger, and he brought the session to a close.

Lev Sukhanov, a longtime aide to Mr. Yeltsin, noted later that the "reactionary majority remains, and the struggle continues."

Within hours, in fact, a special committee that was supposed to find a compromise rejected Mr. Yeltsin's proposals and resurrected the resolution that had already failed during the regular session -- which apparently will put it back on the agenda when the Congress reconvenes today.

A striking feature of the day was the uneasy quiet that prevailed apart from the speechmaking. Deputies hurried grim-faced to and from the hall. Neither anger nor elation greeted the vote on Mr. Yeltsin's powers.

Andrei Fyodorov, who is close to Aleksandr Rutskoi, the vice president, said he thought there was less grandstanding yesterday because the various factions within the Congress are better organized than they have ever been before. He said the deputies were less subject to stampeding, as a result, and this was cutting into Mr. Khasbulatov's abilities to control the session.

But there is no love for Mr. Yeltsin, either, among most of the deputies, and no one seems quite sure what will happen in the next several days.

Mr. Yeltsin, for one, seems to have decided that the referendum he once championed could cause more problems than it would solve and appears to be eager to find a way to avoid it, but only on his terms. His allies said yesterday he is quite prepared to go ahead with it.

His hard-line foes are dead set against it -- figuring, apparently, that they would have little chance of winning.

One faction in Congress, led by Oleg Rumyantsev, suggested that there could be a referendum but it ought to be much later, and that for the time being the Congress should just forget about forging constitutional deals.

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