Soviet Union Faces Constitutional Crisis

SOVIET economic reform may become a casualty if the national and republican parliaments continue their bitter battle for power, some Soviet legislators say. The national Supreme Soviet, or parliament, tried to assert its authority last week by declaring that its laws supersede measures adopted by the legislatures of the country's 15 republics.

Within hours, however, the parliaments of the Russian Republic and the Ukraine - the Soviet Union's two largest republics - responded by announcing their own laws were supreme. Meanwhile, other republics, including the Baltics and Byelorussia, have been generally ignoring directives from Moscow.

A constitutional crisis appears to be looming which could have disastrous consequences for the long-awaited transition to a market economy, says Vladimir Silayev, a deputy in the Russian Republic's parliament.

``We need to be united. If we don't establish some kind of working relationship with the center, it will without a doubt harm the transition to a market [economy],'' Mr. Silayev says. ``We may lose the faith of the people, and then there's no hope.''

President Mikhail Gorbachev's reform plan, adopted this month by the national parliament, calls for a careful move to a market without a specific timetable. The Russian Republic earlier approved the 500-day plan of economist Stanislav Shatalin, who advocates rapid privatization. The Ukraine also favors a more radical program that would allow it to establish its own currency.

So far, Mr. Gorbachev has tried to keep his plan on track by issuing decrees. The national Supreme Soviet has granted Gorbachev broad lawmaking powers, and his latest presidential decree will permit foreign companies to fully own enterprises on Soviet soil. Previously, a foreign company could operate only in a joint venture with a Soviet partner.

Gorbachev is also trying to circumvent parliamentary problems by attracting foreign aid to finance the move to the market. He received a $1.5 billion credit on Saturday from Spain, where he was on a state visit. He later tried to cajole more aid from the West, saying that, without a larger foreign infusion, a return to the old command system of the economy could not be ruled out.

Although warnings have worked well for Gorbachev in his dealings with foreign governments, his own people have grown tired of such rhetoric.

Gorbachev's decrees do not come with a real mechanism to enforce them, and so many republics are not paying attention.

``We have no use for Gorbachev, either for his plan or his decrees,'' says Mikhailo Ratushny, a leader of the Kiev chapter of Rukh, the Ukrainian nationalist movement.

The Baltic Republic of Estonia has already announced it will not obey Gorbachev's order to hold a military parade on Nov. 7, the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

If real economic reform is to occur, the powers of the national parliament and the republican legislatures will have to be better defined, Silayev says.

``Now everyone is trying to do everything and nothing is being accomplished,'' he says. ``The national Supreme Soviet should concern itself with foreign affairs, defense, and the environment, and leave the rest to the republics.''

The Russian Republic's parliament would like to find a compromise through direct negotiations with the center, says Karl Ruppel, a Russian deputy from the oil-producing region of Tyumen. Gorbachev has shown no sign of being willing to discuss the situation with Boris Yeltsin, Russia's president.

For the moment, the national parliament has the upper hand because it controls the key organs of power, Mr. Ruppel says.

If the situation becomes severe over the short term, Gorbachev or the national parliament could use the Army to overturn republican laws, such as a recent ban on exporting goods produced in Byelorussia approved by its legislature.

In the long run, however, either the center will have to give in or it will perish, some lawmakers predict.

``The republics will eventually win this struggle, because the central organs of power lack the trust of the people,'' Ruppel says. ``But if it's a long struggle, many people will suffer.''

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