Tough Days for Russia's Yeltsin

Winter session of Congress of People's Deputies nearly scuttles nation's reform-minded government

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

BATTERED by political storms and listing badly, Russia's ship of state is struggling to reach a safe port.

The winter session of the Congress of People's Deputies, the country's supreme legislature, has proved to be far more tumultuous than the government of Russian President Boris Yeltsin had expected. The Russian leader on Saturday escaped a bid by opponents to drastically curb his powers, vital for economic reforms, and to shift them to the conservative parliament.

While the government avoided the worst, its waning political strength became strikingly visible during the five days of Congress meetings, which are expected to end this week. Neither President Yeltsin nor his ministers have wielded much influence over the 1,023 deputies gathered in the Kremlin for their twice-annual session. The members of the would-be partnership of the government and centrists have spent their time accusing each other of betrayal and impotence. The more hard-line foes of the governmen t, the axis of former Communists and extreme Russian nationalists, are already eagerly antici- pating their next bout in the spring.

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When the votes on nine proposed amendments to the Constitution were announced at close of Saturday's work, the margin of the government's victory was breathtakingly close. An amendment to give parliament, instead of Yeltsin, the power to approve all key Cabinet appointments failed to reach the required two-thirds majority by a mere four votes. Another that would have allowed parliament to form ministries and executive departments fell only one vote short.

Members of the government of Acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar tried to put the best face on the results. "We haven't broken the fragile equilibrium of power that existed in Russia," Minister of Economy Andrei Nechayev told reporters. "At least it won't be possible to destroy the government in the way the opposition hoped for at the Congress. But this doesn't mean the government will have an easy time in the future."

Mr. Nechayev's caution is borne out by a closer look at changes the Congress did approve, as well as objectives the government failed to achieve.

The Congress passed an amendment compelling the government to submit for approval all proposed changes in government structure to the standing parliament, the Supreme Soviet. Another amendment makes the Cabinet responsible to parliament as well as the president, a vague formula that Yeltsin adviser Sergei Stankeivich warns could have "rather serious" implications that include confusing the lines of power. There are also worries the opposition will try to redraft and pass this week the amendment requiring

parliament's approval for Cabinet appointments.

Lost in the furor over these amendments was the more basic change embodied in the president's inability to gain backing for his own proposals for power-sharing made at the start of the Congress on Dec. 1. Yeltsin had sought to deny parliament's right to initiate legislation on economic reform issues while giving up an attempt to extend his emergency powers to legislate by decree. But the decree authority, by which most of the key economic reforms have been enacted, has now expired, and Yeltsin failed to get the powers he had hoped for in the bargain.

As the Congress heads toward a close this week, Yeltsin faces an additional hurdle in trying to gain its approval of economic reform architect Mr. Gaidar. Yeltsin aide Stankeivich, anticipating that the president's nominee might not be approved, says Gaidar could be kept on as acting premier for a few more months, perhaps until April's session of Congress.

The result may be a tough atmosphere for ongoing reforms in Russia. One Western economic advisor warns that the conservative-dominated parliament may now go on to try to impose wage and price controls resisted by Gaidar's team.

The voting pattern reflected the failure of the government to secure the backing of most of the centrist factions, as well as many nonaffiliated deputies. In days prior to the Congress, the government sought a deal with Civic Union, an alliance of centrist groups. But that pact was never solidified, and most centrists joined hands with the hard-line Russian Unity bloc, which claims about 350 followers in the Congress.

The president could only count on the hard-core support of the Radical Democrats, Democratic Russia, and other pro-government reformers, numbering an estimated 240 deputies. Last-minute lobbying efforts rounded up about 100 more supporters, mainly by applying pressure through on regional government chiefs.

Many centrists, instead of siding with Yeltsin, backed a shift of powers to parliament, arguing that this was the price for keeping Gaidar and his economic reforms.

"The whole trick was to make these amendments and to save Gaidar and his team," says deputy Alexander Lubimov, a well-known television producer and member of Smena-New Change faction, one part of Civic Union. "Now we can't stop the Communists.... Even if Gaidar passes, they will take revenge in the Supreme Soviet." Members of the Supreme Soviet are drawn from the Congress of People's Deputies.

Mr. Lubimov and other centrists say the government failed to seal support by refusing to agree beforehand to a new cabinet that would include many from their ranks.

Members of the government retort that Civic Union couldn't deliver on its claim to have 400 supporters in the Congress. "As a matter of fact, nobody knows whether Civic Union has votes at the Congress," says Deputy Premier Alexander Shokhin.

Meanwhile, hard-liners seem content to wait until the April Congress, letting the Gaidar government discredit itself further as the economy slides deeper into crisis.

"We must start preparing for the next stage already," Russian Unity leader Ilya Konstantinov said after Saturday's vote. "The decisive moment has been put off."

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