A CONSERVATIVE backlash against radical reform at the Congress of People's Deputies has pushed the Russian government to the brink of resignation.
Economics Minister Andrei Nechayev said the Cabinet yesterday submitted to President Boris Yeltsin a conditional letter of resignation, stating the government would quit if the congress failed to rescind decisions that effectively put the brakes on radical reform. The measures, adopted on Saturday, would saddle the government with increased expenses that it cannot afford, Mr. Nechayev said.
"This action is aimed at curtailing reforms, and this government can't carry out this course," Nechayev told reporters during yesterday's session. "The congress must reverse their decisions by the end of the congress, or the government will resign."
The congress yesterday did not appear willing to cooperate with the government and Mr. Yeltsin, who was not present during the morning session. Following a 40-minute debate, deputies declined to reopen discussion of Saturday's resolution on the pace of economic reform. Instead, they discussed possible changes to the 1978 Russian Constitution.
Leaders of both the government and the Supreme Soviet, Russia's standing parliament, met Sunday to work out an arrangement that would keep radical reforms on course and the government in place. Nechayev said the talks were productive and a compromise was possible. Parliament first deputy chairman Sergei Filatov also said the meeting showed the two sides could "achieve a rapprochement," the Interfax news agency reported.
Nevertheless, a "great correction" of Saturday's decisions was needed to prevent the government's resignation, Nechayev said. "We can only hope the deputies are wise enough to realize their decisions will bring the country to the brink of financial ruin," he said.
The economics minister hinted the resignation threat was being used to scare deputies into changing their minds. "This [resignation] letter is an additional argument that might influence the stance of the congress," Nechayev said. Another key element in the government's scare tactics was a memorandum circulated yesterday predicting economic disaster if the congress stood by its decisions.
On Saturday, the congress voted to increase welfare payments to segments of society that have been hard hit by the crash economic reform program. The government memorandum said the additional payments would increase the budget deficit to 1.5 trillion rubles ($15 billion) in 1992, 23 percent of Russia's gross national product. Hyperinflation would result if the government carried out the congress's directives, the memo added.
If the government and parliament are unable to work out a compromise, the only way Yeltsin will be able to keep radical reform on track is by calling a nationwide referendum to disband the parliament, said some supporters of radical reform in the parliament.
"We can solve this problem only by resorting to a referendum because the Supreme Soviet and the congress are actually a remnant of the Stalin-Brezhnev-Gorbachev system," said deputy Gleb Yakunin, a Russian Orthodox priest and member of the Democratic Rossiya movement.
But according to presidential adviser Galina Starovoitova, conservatives yesterday already were working to foil a possible referendum attempt, preparing a bill that would prohibit popular referendums until 1995.
"They want to conduct policy for four more years as they have done at this congress," she said.
The conservatives' first attempt to put the brakes on reform Thursday was defeated by the radical reformers with relative ease. Yeltsin then solidified his position Friday, winning parliamentary ratification of the recently signed federation treaty, which is designed to prevent Russia from going through a Soviet-style breakup. At the same time, however, the president indicated he would give up the post of prime minister within three months - a concession to his conservative critics. In return for his ple dge to step down as head of government, Yeltsin expected the congress to approve an extension of his sweeping executive powers until the end of the year. The president had used the special authority, which the congress granted him last autumn, to rule by decree during the implementation of radical reforms.
On Saturday, congress rejected in a close vote Yeltsin's bid to retain his emergency powers until December. And later in the day, with the president absent from the session at the Grand Kremlin Palace, the conservative majority in the legislature approved the measures that watered down economic reform.
Deputies then approved, in a 683-to-123 vote, an amendment stating Yeltsin must give up his special powers in three months.
The votes Saturday clearly caught Cabinet members off guard. At a news conference yesterday, Yegor Gaidar, the deputy prime minister in charge of radical reform, also warned that congress's actions "would lead to an end of the aid of the world community."
But Viktor Sheinis, a Democratic Rossiya leader, said the current crisis could have easily been prevented had Yeltsin won Saturday's vote on the extension of his emergency powers.
"We fell short by 30 votes," Mr. Sheinis said. "If people had been responsible it would have been possible to avoid such an irresponsible outcome."