OPPOSITION leader Nikolai Travkin stood at the podium in the vast Kremlin Palace of Congresses and assailed every point of the president's program. As Mr. Travkin finished, President Mikhail Gorbachev spoke from behind him on the dais.
``You obviously didn't read or listen to my report. Perhaps you don't want to. Here it is,'' he said dismissively, waving the document. The head of the Democratic Party of Russia, the largest opposition group in the country, submissively took it and walked away.
It was vintage Gorbachev - the Soviet leader at his imperious best, at once both confident and intimidating.
A third of the way through the semiannual gathering of the Congress of Peoples Deputies, it is already clear that Mr. Gorbachev will have little difficulty getting this body to do his bidding, despite public displays of angst and anger. But it is already obvious that more and more, such triumphs are empty victories.
``The time when the Kremlin could command is already past,'' Russian parliament head Boris Yeltsin told the Congress yesterday. ``The republics are no longer afraid of rebukes, and no decree, even the most severe, will function if the interests of the republics have to be sacrificed for it.''
Gorbachev is asking the Congress, the country's highest legislative body, to give him vastly expanded presidential powers and to back a new treaty of union that combines a strong federal center with more powers for the republics. He has clearly gained ground when it comes to his call for strong central rule, getting support not only from conservatives but also the democratic left, including figures such as Moscow Mayor Gavriil Popov.
Conservatives have enthusiastically backed him in calling for discipline and order to preserve a unified Soviet state. About 50 lawmkers, including the armed forces chief of staff and the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, yesterday urged Gorbachev to combat ``separatists'' by declaring a state of emergency and rule by decree in areas of nationalist revolt.
Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, who is expected to step down as premier following reorganization of the Cabinet structure, joined in warning against ``political forces'' that aim to ``destroy'' the Soviet state and social system. He was also critical of Gorbachev, saying past steps to strengthen his powers have brought ``no significant changes.''
The nationalist governments that rule in many Soviet republics have already served notice they will ignore the decisions of the Congress. This was made manifest in the empty seats that had been reserved for the delegations from republics such as Lithuania, Armenia, and Georgia, which refused to come or sent token ``observers.'' The delegation from Moldavia walked out on Tuesday and those from Latvia and Estonia are expected to follow.
Arnold Ruutel, the scholarly president of the Baltic republic of Estonia, addressed the gathering on Tuesday morning as the representative of a foreign state, referring calmly to ``relations between the USSR and the Republic of Estonia.''
Even the leaders of the Central Asian republics, once thought of as bastions of conservatism, drew their own lines. Islam Karimov, the tough-talking president of Uzbekistan, supported his Kazakh neighbor in demanding that a union treaty be drafted first through agreements among the republics. Power must flow from the republics to the center, not the other way around, as Gorbachev proposes, he said.
The Congress will likely back the union treaty in principle, along with Gorbachev's proposal that the treaty be approved through referendums to be held in each republic and nationwide. Gorbachev describes the referendum as an effort to go around governments that he insists do not represent their people.
Many nationalist governments reject the idea, because they say it allows the Kremlin to win either way - if the population votes against the treaty, the republic is then required to follow an existing law on secession and vote again in five years.
Mr. Yeltsin, backing the idea of a union pact being negotiated first among republics, told the Congress: ``This is not a breakup of the union. It is the only means of saving it.''