MOSCOW -- President Boris N. Yeltsin went on the offensive and his chief rival, parliament Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, retreated from a threat of impeachment as the stage was set for today's meeting of Congress that would climax Russia's weeklong political crisis.
Apparently realizing he doesn't have the votes to depose the president at the meeting of the Congress of People's Deputies, Mr. Khasbulatov said yesterday he thought impeachment seemed a bad idea. He hinted at other measures the Congress might take in its protracted assault on the president's power -- while allowing him to keep his post.
Speaking to reporters just before Mr. Yeltsin went on television to denounce attempts to unseat or weaken him, Mr. Khasbulatov said, "To tell you frankly, I am not a supporter of impeachment."
"Impeachment is the most extreme measure," said the 50-year-old politician who has been the architect of parliament's attempts to diminish Mr. Yeltsin's power. "I don't think that among all possible measures we should immediately talk about the most extreme one."
Speaking later on national television, Mr. Khasbulatov (pronounced kahz-boo-LAH-tawf) left no doubt that his hostility toward Mr. Yeltsin remained as before. He roundly criticized Mr. Yeltsin for his reforms, for purportedly trying to monopolize power, for an economic program "totally subordinated to Western influence."
But he did not directly accuse the president of violating the constitution, and said, "We didn't summon the Congress to fire anyone."
Mr. Khazbulatov's apparent retreat on the issue of impeachment PTC came as others of Mr. Yeltsin's most ardent foes among the legislature's hard-liners conceded that they were unlikely to muster the two-thirds vote -- out of 1,033 members -- needed to remove the president.
Nikolai Pavlov, one of the leaders of the Russian Unity opposition bloc, said that he would like to kick Mr. Yeltsin out of office but conceded that it was "unlikely" to happen.
Mr. Yeltsin clearly sensed the tide turning his way. In a 10-minute national TV broadcast, he accused his enemies in Congress of a sinister plot to set back democracy and launched a pre-emptive attack against any efforts to trim his power.
Looking determined and sounding forceful Mr. Yeltsin spoke with the white, blue and red Russian flag behind him and warned, "There are forces in the Supreme Soviet which are seeking any reason to increase confrontation. It can be said with certainty today: One of the scenarios of overthrowing the president is under way."
Mr. Yeltsin launched Russia's latest crisis in its long-running power struggle on Saturday night, when he announced that he was taking "special powers" to rule the nation until an April 25 referendum that would include a vote of confidence in him and one on a proposed new constitution that would prepare the way for a popularly elected parliament.
At the parliament's request, the Constitutional Court found that what Mr. Yeltsin proposed was unconstitutional. Consequently the Supreme Soviet voted Wednesday to convene the larger Congress of People's Deputies to consider his ouster.
But only then did Mr. Yeltsin formally submit the decree he had promised Saturday night, considerably moderated from his original threat. The decree did not mention special powers, and it promised to respect the integrity of Russia's legislature in the period leading to elections.
What had seemed a clear-cut slap in the face on Saturday, one that the parliament's hard-liners hoped to throw back at the president today, had become rather less well-defined four days later.
While opponents tried to decide just what the milder-sounding decree really meant, Mr. Yeltsin was at the same time making it clear that he would ignore an impeachment vote if it went against him. And as support for Mr. Yeltsin appeared to be building in polls here and from groups in Russia's outlying region, Mr. Khasbulatov began his usual adroit maneuvering yesterday.
On Tuesday, after the court ruling, he had said there were all the grounds necessary to impeach Mr. Yeltsin. (The word as it is used here means removing an official from office.) He did not actually urge that Mr. Yeltsin be impeached, but he said the Congress should convene to take up the proposition.
Yesterday, Mr. Khasbulatov changed his thrust considerably. On the contrary, he said, the Congress was not being convened to remove Mr. Yeltsin from office. He mentioned that he would like ** to put the Cabinet under the control of the parliament. All that it would take to accomplish that would be approval of a constitutional amendment by the Congress.
Such a move, which Mr. Khasbulatov has been pushing toward since December, would clearly be more to his liking than the outright ouster of Mr. Yeltsin. But this would be the product of "secret preparations" for constitutional changes, the president said.
"The intention is that this will be done by the deputies behind the backs of Russia's citizens, behind the backs of the voters," he said. "They apparently want to inform you about their decision afterwards.
"All this is being accompanied by increased hysteria and yelling about coups and conspiracies. I think that the popular saying, 'An uneasy conscience betrays itself,' is quite appropriate here.
"If the Congress adopts historically incorrect decisions, it will plunge the people into an abyss of confrontation," he warned.
Although the the members of the full Congress were summoned expressly to consider impeachment, the body sets its own agenda, and its course in this session could become entirely unpredictable.
The Congress is free to change the constitution as it wishes -- it has done so more than 300 times since it was elected in 1990 -- and it has shown itself to be subject to considerable manipulation by Mr. Khasbulatov.
Individual members' votes are not recorded.
The Congress elects from its own membership the smaller Supreme Soviet, which therefore answers not to the constituents but to the Congress.
Mr. Khasbulatov is chairman of both.
The constitution Mr. Yeltsin wants would eliminate the Congress outright. In his most recent proposals Mr. Yeltsin has talked only of elections to a new bicameral parliament with newly defined authority -- not to another 1,000-member Congress with virtually unlimited legislative powers.
Mr. Khasbulatov, too, reiterated his call for simultaneous elections for the legislature and the president, either next fall or in the spring of 1994. Mr. Yeltsin has said presidential elections should follow parliamentary elections by a year, since the Congress was elected in March 1990, 15 months before him and Vice President Alexander Rutskoi.
The deputies themselves have little incentive to give up their considerable perquisites -- ranging from drivers to Moscow apartments to free airfare when traveling to the capital -- just to go before a disgruntled electorate before they have to. Under the existing arrangement, the next scheduled parliamentary elections are in 1995.
If the Congress does not take up Mr. Yeltsin's impeachment when it meets today, the Russian crisis will in many ways be back where it started last December, with legislature and president vying for power and neither strong enough to impose a solution.
So what had promised to be a clarifying fight to the finish when the week began now threatens more and more to end up as a standstill.