WHEN it came time to adopt a new constitution, legislators at the Russian Congress of People's Deputies resorted to the old practice of putting off the toughest decisions until a later date.
The lawmakers moved quickly Saturday to limit debate to a draft constitution prepared by parliament's Constitutional Commission, disregarding three other constitutional blueprints, including a version endorsed by President Boris Yeltsin.
But when put to a vote, the lawmakers ignored parliament chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov's advice and declined to give their full backing to the parliamentary draft. Instead, the Congress opted merely to endorse the basic concepts of the document. The draft constitution now goes back to the parliamentary commission for revisions. It will not come up for approval again until the next session of the Congress, most likely in the fall.
The Congress' decision is seen as a minor victory by some advocates of radical reform in parliament because it keeps alive the chances for passing a new constitution this year. The new document would replace the 1978 Constitution, a legacy of the communist era that must be discarded if Russia hopes to make a successful transition to a market economy, radical reformers say.
But in failing to adopt a specific constitutional framework, the lawmakers avoided confronting perhaps the biggest problem facing Russia's young democracy: how to divide power among the different branches of government. Until the legislative and executive branches can precisely determine their responsibilities, the long-term picture for reforms remains cloudy, say some deputies, including Sergei Shakhrai, Mr. Yeltsin's adviser on legal affairs. Pace of reform
During the two-week-old Congress session, the executive and legislative branches have constantly battled for power. At first the debate focused on the pace of economic reform.
Last week, after much wrangling, a vague compromise was finally forged that should keep the government's radical program on course for the next few months. The fate of reforms after that is not certain, however.
The parliament has shown much less willingness to plunge ahead with radical reform than the present government.
Yeltsin currently enjoys the right to run the economy by decree and appoint Cabinet ministers without parliamentary approval, using emergency powers granted to him by the Congress last fall.
The Congress wants to strip Yeltsin of his emergency mandate by the end of the year at the latest.
Yeltsin's supporters hoped Saturday to ensconce the president's sweeping powers in the constitution, but their proposed draft was quickly dismissed by legislators.
The Congress, the highest legislative body in Russia, prefers the constitutional variant that makes the Supreme Soviet, the standing parliament, the top organ of power. Under parliament's draft constitution, the legislature would control the budget, tax collection, and the banking system. It would also have veto power over the president, as well as the right of approval of government ministers.
But the Congress' vote Saturday does not end the debate. The struggle over the constitution, which must be approved by a two-thirds majority in the 1,046-member Congress, now will move on to the Constitutional Commission. There, Yeltsin's team will continue to fight for broad executive powers in the constitution, Mr. Shakhrai indicated.
"It's bad when all power is in the hands of the president, or Cabinet," he told fellow lawmakers, "but it's also bad when all power is in the hands of the legislature. We need balance."
Many deputies appear ready to stand firm on their position, saying parliament's draft constitution provides for a proper balance of power. "The president has enough power right now. He doesn't need more," says liberal legislator Viktor Sheinis.
While the two sides begin what promises to be a long search for compromise, the changing economy may become hamstrung by opposing moves by the two branches of government. The Congress' refusal to adopt an amendment to the 1978 Constitution regarding the unrestricted sale and purchase of land shows the legislature and the government still disagree on reform, despite a congressional declaration of support for the government's radical policies.
"It will impede carrying out reforms in the future," says Deputy parliament speaker Sergei Filatov of the land decision. Jockeying with Communists
The jockeying between the legislative and executive branches is not the only factor holding up passage of the new constitution. The refusal to pass the land-sale amendment underscores another big obstacle: the struggle between the old communist order and the new democratic order.
The Congress was established in 1989 and held its first session in June 1990, during the Soviet era and, accordingly members of the former Communist Party, still have considerable influence in the body. According to Mr. Filatov, the conservative attitudes of many make it difficult to win constitutional approval for such concepts as private property.
But Ivan Polozkov, a legislator and the former chief of the Russian Communist Party, dismissed the notion that Communists wanted to block the new constitution.
Mr. Polozkov said many former Party members had reconciled their positions with the need for change, although maybe not as fast-paced as the radicals would like. He blamed the constitutional deadlock on personal rivalries among members of the government and Mr. Khasbulatov, the parliament speaker. Cumbersome parliament
Whatever the reason for the delay in adopting a new constitution, some argue that the Congress' bloated size makes it impossible for the body to find a solution that would set Russia on firm ground for the future.
Both Shakhrai and Polozkov - who represent opposite ends of the political spectrum - say the constitutional question can only be solved through a nationwide referendum.
"The laws of political development are as objective as those of economics and physics, and I believe the transition from one social system to the other social system in any society takes place in accordance with these laws, of course, taking some national characteristics into account," says Shakhrai of Russia's current situation.
"If there are different opinions among the president, government, and the parliament on this topic, one shouldn't get panicky," he continues. "We must hold a referendum."