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Russians Face Off Over Reform

Conservative opposition keeps up pressure on embattled president to slow pace of change

By Justin BurkeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 10, 1992



MOSCOW

CONSERVATIVES at Russia's Congress of People's Deputies yesterday kept up the pressure on President Boris Yeltsin and his government, which is struggling to keep radical reform on course. The majority oppose a fast pace of reform.

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A draft resolution, curculated by conservatives Wednesday, sought to strip Mr. Yeltsin of many of the emergency powers that he used to launch reform, as well as force him to step down as prime minister. In response, the government threatened to resign and force a nationwide referendum on the reform issue if the resolution were approved. The confrontation continued yesterday, as both sides wrestled over wording of the resolution.

Though Yeltsin's situation would appear precarious, some government backers felt the outcome of any vote on the resolution would go in the president's favor. While the level of dissatisfaction with the president's policies might be high, supporters say, the opposition does not have an alternative plan.

"I'm absolutely sure he'll be able to cope with the situation and the storm will pass over because today he's the embodiment of reform," says Gen. Dmitry Volkogonov, presidential adviser on military affairs.

At the same time supporters said changes in the government were imminent, but added that the general course of reform should remain on track.

According to General Volkogonov and other Yeltsin supporters, the debate over economic reform at the Congress has so far followed a carefully orchestrated script. The conservatives have pushed their rhetoric to the limit, but will turn back before crossing the figurative line, they say.

The Congress will not resort to a direct attack on the president, says Oleg Poptsov, a deputy who is the head of Russian television.

To help ensure the conservatives' compliance with the Congress ground rules, Yeltsin has promised to continue a Cabinet reshuffle to bring people into the government who have broad practical experience in industry and agriculture.

"As it happens, we will begin a structural reorganization of industry and agriculture. The government needs professional, hands-on members tied to industry and agriculture," says presidential adviser Sergei Stankevich.

According to Mr. Poptsov, the managers of some of Russia's largest industrial enterprises, including the massive Kirov plant in St. Petersburg and the Togliatti Auto Works along the Volga River, are being considered for Cabinet appointments.

Yeltsin also has played on Russian nationalism in what conservative leader Sergei Baburin calls an attempt to divert the Congress's attention from the issue of government competence.

Over the last few days Yeltsin has acted to defend Russian interests in other former Soviet republics, specifically Ukraine and Moldova. He issued a presidential decree placing the disputed Black Sea fleet under Russian control following a move by Ukraine to assume authority over the 300-vessel flotilla. (See story below.) In addition, he brought the 14th Army in Moldova under Russia's jurisdiction in a move to protect ethnic Russians in the so-called Dniestr Republic, which is fighting to break away fro m Moldova.

If it was Yeltsin's intent to distract the Congress, the ploy has worked to a certain extent. His actions regarding Ukraine and Moldova have been highly popular in the Congress, where nationalist sentiments run high. But controlling future developments may not be easy, some Yeltsin supporters warn.

"He's probably behaving in somewhat an impulsive way," says Volkogonov, Yeltsin's military adviser. "The most important thing now is negotiations."

Russia and Ukraine moved toward a negotiated solution on the Black Sea Fleet yesterday. Both Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk suspended their respective decrees and agreed to establish a joint commission to resolve the Black Sea Fleet issue.