Yeltsin is thrown for a loss Reform opponents in Congress gain in power struggle


MOSCOW -- Rejecting reconciliation, the Russian Congress flaunted its disdain for President Boris N. Yeltsin as it ended a turbulent four-day emergency session yesterday.

Several members, including the speaker, Ruslan Khasbulatov, derided the president as the Congress voted to thwart Mr. Yeltsin's plans to hold a nationwide referendum before adjourning.

The end of the session brought to a close a chapter in the bitter struggle for power between Mr. Yeltsin and his anti-reform opponents. And now those opponents clearly have the upper hand.

Although the economic reforms ordered by Mr. Yeltsin in the last year remain in place, and further privatization of state-owned enterprises is set to proceed, the parliament has gained the ability to obstruct any new efforts by the president.

His decrees can be challenged and blocked. His key Cabinet appointments must now win parliamentary approval -- a process that will not have the benefit-of-the-doubt ethos that generally surrounds U.S. confirmation hearings. Moreover, Mr. Yeltsin's foes have demonstrated his political vulnerability. The momentum is on their side.

In the last four days they cut significantly into his authority. By yesterday they were laying plans for the next session of the Congress of People's Deputies, in June, when hard-liners hope to strip him of his executive power altogether.

One democratic reformer in the Congress resigned yesterday.

"I am not going to participate in what has taken place here, which is a Communist coup," said Viktor Mironov. "All power in the country has been usurped by Khasbulatov."

But Ilya Konstantinov, one of the leaders of the extreme-right National Salvation Front that Mr. Yeltsin once tried to ban, said there was much more work to be done to stop Mr. Yeltsin and his reform allies.

"It is only the beginning of the struggle," he said.

"If we do not solve the issue of the president and his associates," said a colleague, Yuri Bondarenko, "we will not solve the problem facing our country."

The hard-liners harbor a catalog of grievances and anxieties. They don't like military spending cuts, retail commerce, anything smacking of foreign influence, be it economic or political, deference to the United States on any score, criticism of Serbia, insults to Russians in other former Soviet republics, or a free press.

Yesterday they were jubilant, and it seemed that Russia was in for a tempestuous spring.

any one person emerged last week who might have the ability to steer the government through the storms that lie ahead, it is the prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Mr. Chernomyrdin, 54, gave a short, well-received address at the Congress yesterday. A former executive in the Oil Ministry who spent much of his career in the oil fields of Siberia, he has the kind of full-faced rough-hewn image about him that the mostly ex-Communist people's deputies find compatible.

He is particularly popular among industrial managers, although up to now they have not wielded much political clout.

Unlike his predecessor, Yegor Gaidar, Mr. Yeltsin's choice whom the Congress forced out in December, Mr. Chernomyrdin is no intellectual, and that's an advantage. But he has a reputation for listening well, and knowing whom to listen to -- neither being a strong point of Mr. Yeltsin's -- and in the last three months his Cabinet has pushed ahead with economic reforms.

After the battering Mr. Yeltsin took from the Congress, Mr. Chernomyrdin may emerge somewhat from the president's shadow. The crucial question is whether the prime minister, who has been criticized as being altogether too pliable, will now backtrack on reform.

Yesterday he thanked the deputies for giving him some measure of influence over the Central Bank and other financial institutions, which had been completely independent of the Cabinet. The changes were, in reality, little more than symbolic, and Mr. Chernomyrdin could have been accused of hastily buttering up the new political heavyweights.

"No, Viktor Chernomyrdin was simply being diplomatic," said Aleksei Yemilyanov, a member of the president's advisory council. "He understands that they need to work together. He wasn't walking away from Yeltsin. Chernomyrdin can bring together people of different points of view. He's strong but flexible. He's strong where Gaidar was weak."

He will need all his strength, because hostility toward Mr. Yeltsin and his government is running high.

President Yelsin declared Friday that he would seek a referendum April 25 so the Russian people could choose directly between a presidential or a parliamentary republic. But yesterday the Congress voted to ban referendums for three months.

It was a perfect example, Mr. Yemilyanov said, of the counterproductive way Mr. Yeltsin sometimes stirs up antagonism rather than trying to win over wavering deputies. When the session began Wednesday, a majority probably would have favored holding a referendum.

Mr. Yeltsin's allies said yesterday that he would sponsor a non-binding plebiscite instead, in search of moral support at least.

Few here doubt that Mr. Yeltsin remains considerably more popular than the Congress.

Yesterday, the deputies instructed the smaller standing parliament, the Supreme Soviet, to consider holding early elections for both president and parliament, which would not normally come until 1996 and 1995, respectively.

Such elections could clear the air and bring an end to the political wrangling.

For now, Russia has a Cabinet chosen by Mr. Yeltsin operating under the newly established influence of the parliament.

The first deputy prime minister, Vladimir Shumeiko, said the object of the struggle at this week's session was the course of economic reform. Now that the Congress had weakened Mr. Yeltsin's executive power it was guaranteeing a slowdown, he said.

"And this while the economy is on the edge of the abyss," he said.

Critics in the Congress counter that it was the Cabinet that put the economy in such straits that many Russians feel they have been driven into poverty.

"The economic reform backfired against a majority of the people," said an statement to the Russian people approved by the Congress yesterday.

It said further that the Congress had "tried to defend the people against political adventurism, chaos and the disintegration of Russia." The statement, which went on to criticize Mr. Yeltsin for overstepping his authority, bore the unmistakable stamp of the speaker, Mr. Khasbulatov.

A Yeltsin ally during the tense days and nights of the August 1991 coup attempt, Mr. Khasbulatov has turned on his former comrade with a vengeance.

He is not a zealot, like the leaders of the National Salvation Front. But after the failure of the centrist bloc to form a strong, cohesive unit, Mr. Khasbulatov made common cause with the hard-liners at this session.

One of them, Mikhail Astafyev, said yesterday that Mr. Khasbulatov had "brilliantly" won the Congress.

This puts Mr. Khasbulatov in an odd position. Poll after poll shows him to be one of the most deeply disliked people in Russia.

He seems driven less by a realistic desire to advance himself than by the desire to ruin Mr. Yeltsin and his program for Russia. The next few months will tell how successful he has been.

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