DELEGATES to the Russian Congress of People's Deputies, making their way across the cobblestones of Red Square yesterday morning, passed between jeering Communist protesters waving flags of the defunct Soviet Union. At the gates of the Kremlin, a smaller crowd of supporters of Russian President Boris Yeltsin waited, chanting the name of their leader and holding placards backing reform.
The scene on the streets was matched inside the long, columned hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace where backers and foes of the Yeltsin government and its market reform policies squared off on the first day of what promises to be a stormy session of the country's supreme legislature.
Ruslan Khasbulatov, the parliament chairman and a fierce critic of Mr. Yeltsin's policies, issued a challenge to Yeltsin's effort to keep his vast emergency powers. Those powers, including the right to rule by decree, were granted by the last session of the Congress and have been the key instrument to push through tough reforms.
"Social and political tensions prevailing in nearly the entire country threaten to end in a collapse," Mr. Khasbulatov warned in his opening remarks yesterday. In an obvious jab at Yeltsin, he cautioned against "outside pressure or hints at using unconstitutional methods" to resolve the issues at the Congress. "In this Congress hall we need understanding; we need a dialogue and not a monologue, an agreement to joint work and compromise. This compromise is needed by the president more than by anybody else ," he said.
In the early hours of the session, pro- and anti-Yeltsin camps carried out tests of voting strength that are sure to be repeated in the days ahead. Yeltsin supporters failed badly in an attempt to rebuke Khasbulatov with a proposal to put a confidence vote in his leadership on the agenda.
The Yeltsin camp had to settle for a narrow victory in a vote on whether to place a no-confidence motion on the entire government on the agenda. That proposal, put forward by a conservative Communist leader, was rejected by 447 votes to 412. However the Congress voted overwhelmingly, by 635-274, to demand that Yeltsin personally give an account of the government's economic reforms to the body.
The Congress session, the first since the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of last year, plans to focus on several key issues beginning with the economic reforms, then moving to a vote on a new draft constitution for Russia to replace the existing Communist-era system and concluding with a debate on the function of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
The economic policy debate and the constitutional issue are closely intertwined in the eyes of both camps at the Congress. Those who seek to ease the pace of reforms and return to an approach which favors state-run industries, a view held by the parliament's leadership and many of its members, also favor a system which allocates more power to the legislature.
The Yeltsin camp has offered some compromises in the pace of reform, including the initial steps toward a reshuffle of the cabinet which would give industry leaders are greater role. But Yeltsin, as he made clear in a speech on Sunday, insists that he retain his emergency powers including the right to appoint cabinet members without parliamentary approval.
"The issues are tightly linked," says Pavel Bunich, a Yeltsin adviser and head of the association of entrepreneurs. "Since reforms will be discussed first, the reformers will be the first under fire.... Those who win the first battle will be better prepared to win the second one. I think the reformers will win by offering further concessions, concessions that are necessary but are not of principal value." Yeltsin began these compromises last week by stripping reform czar Yegor Gaidar of his title of fina nce minister. But as long as Mr. Gaidar controls reforms, "the ideology will remain unchanged," Bunich says.
Bunich and others are less sanguine about the prospects for passage of the draft constitution which many believe will be put off as it has been since it was first proposed in the fall of 1990. Yeltsin has proposed a number of amendments to the draft that would retain his strong presidential authority. While this move has the general backing of the democratic movement whose supporters make up about 400 deputies, even they are cautious.
"I think the president has enough powers," says Viktor Sheinis, a leader of the Democratic Russia movement.
Oleg Rumyantsev, the Social Democratic party leader who heads the Constitutional Commission which drafted the new document, has agreed to accept the Yeltsin amendments as temporary measures.
"There must be a strong president and strong parliament, but during the radical reform maybe the president must have more powers - but not in the constitution," he told reporters yesterday.
Much of the afternoon was devoted to heated discussion of the fighting in the former Soviet republic of Moldova between the Romanian majority government and the breakaway Russian-populated Dneister republic. Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoi backed calls for the former Soviet 14th Army based there to intervene in defense of the Russians.