MOSCOW -- The threat to impeach Boris N. Yeltsin virtually evaporated at yesterday's opening of the special session of the Russian Congress, and both sides appeared to be moving closer to elections.
Mr. Yeltsin's opponents did not have the votes to oust him. Compromise was in the air.
A greater political crisis appeared to have been averted for the time being.
President Yeltsin, still hoping to proceed with the April 25 referendum that the Congress found so offensive, rearranged his Cabinet, dumping some of the members who have drawn the most criticism from conservative legislators.
Valery Zorkin, chairman of the Constitutional Court, stopped criticizing Mr. Yeltsin long enough to point out that the president's impeachment would be a "catastrophe."
He proposed early elections next fall to the presidency and to a new bicameral parliament that would replace the current Congress of People's Deputies and the Supreme Soviet, the smaller standing parliament the Congress appoints from its own membership. Mr. Yeltsin wanted new elections, but not simultaneously for the president and the legislature.
Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, the speaker of the Congress and the leader of the opposition to Mr. Yeltsin, reversed form yesterday and let Mr. Yeltsin's allies speak at length, while denying the floor to hard-liners.
The congressional drafting committee reportedly met late into the night working on a compromise resolution that would agree to Mr. Yeltsin's call for a national referendum April 25.
The committee was also considering two more items -- on the early elections for the presidency and the legislature, and on the course of economic reform.
Though the Congress had adjourned for the day without resolving anything, there's still plenty of fight left in both sides and plenty to fight over.
Potential for ugliness
The abiding potential for ugliness was manifest in the final speech of the day by Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, a decorated hero of the Afghan war and former Yeltsin supporter who has turned bitterly against the president.
Mr. Rutskoi was in line to become president if Mr. Yeltsin had been removed from office -- a threat that fizzled when it became obvious that the necessary two-thirds of the deputies wouldn't go along with such a drastic move.
He accused the president's inner circle of advisers of destroying Russia, and he lashed out at his opponents in general.
"Many, carried away with democratic romanticism, are trying to rewrite history and once again create the image of 'the enemy' inside Russian society," he said. "They stick insulting labels on us: 'Red-Browns [a reference to Communists and fascists],' 'party apparatchiks,' 'revanchists.' If this keeps up, soon all of Russia really could be labeled as 'Red-Brown.' "
If the vice president keeps playing a double game, said Vyacheslav Kostikov, Mr. Yeltsin's chief spokesman, "then I think his conscience as a citizen and an officer must finally awaken."
The struggle between Mr. Yeltsin and the hostile Congress has been unresolved since December. In early March the Congress met and made significant inroads into Mr. Yeltsin's authority. It seemed poised to make more.
A week ago, Mr. Yeltsin went on television and announced that he was assuming greater powers and would sponsor a nationwide referendum April 25 -- a vote of confidence in the president and in a new proposed constitution.
That night Mr. Zorkin, president of the Constitutional Court, denounced him even before Mr. Khasbulatov could, and the wheels of impeachment began moving. Everyone began talking about Mr. Rutskoi as a fill-in president.
Yeltsin softens stand
But Mr. Yeltsin softened his stand during the week, diffusing the anger against him.
With impeachment almost certainly put aside for now, the Congress is back in a familiar mode with different factions proposing assaults of varying severity against the president's power (mostly through constitutional changes), and Mr. Yeltsin trying to fend them off.
Yesterday Mr. Yeltsin said he agreed with "many constructive proposals" in Mr. Zorkin's plan for early elections, but he said the most important thing was to put a new constitution up for a vote by the people next month.
Andrei Fyodorov, a deputy who is close to Mr. Rutskoi, said yesterday he believes that the Congress will go along in the end with Mr. Yeltsin's referendum in April.
But to succeed it will need to win the votes of 50 percent of all registered voters -- and with public apathy and disgust running high, Mr. Fyodorov said, he expects the referendum to fail.
That, he said, would set the stage for new elections in the fall.
Mr. Rutskoi joined Mr. Khasbulatov in calling for a "coalition" government to see the country through in the meantime -- but their definition of a coalition government is one that is completely under the control of the parliament, rather than the president.
Meanwhile, a constitutional amendment aimed at parliamentary control of the Cabinet could emerge in the Congress today. One of the president's close allies, Vice Premier Vladimir Shumeiko, called such a change "completely out of the question."
But Mr. Yeltsin did rearrange his ministers yesterday to make them more palatable to the Congress.
Economics minister fired
Andrei Nechayev, the economics minister, was fired, and two other Cabinet members, Vasily Barchuk, the finance minister, and Boris Saltykov, vice premier, were moved to lesser posts.
But at the same time the president gave more authority to Boris Fyodorov, a vigorous proponent of quick economic reform, who was moved into the finance minister's job.
Mr. Yeltsin appeared at the Congress yesterday and gave a speech in which he said his government was partly to blame for the economic pain of the last 15 months.
The crisis, he said, "was aggravated by our own mistakes, which are now quite obvious."
He said the government had not paid enough attention to providing social services to those hurt by the reforms, or to providing support to newly privatized enterprises. The government's program, he said, suffered from "the lack of an effective anti-inflation policy, and from excessive hopes for external aid."
However, the president also sharply attacked the central bank, which is under parliament's control. Skyrocketing inflation, he said, stemmed from the "very negative role played by the central bank's uncontrolled [money] policy. It has sharply worsened the living standards of most Russians."
Today the legislative leadership -- that is, Mr. Khasbulatov -- is expected to come out with counter-proposals for solving the protracted crisis.