IN a whirlwind of appearances and speeches, Russian President Boris Yeltsin has spent the past days shoring up his political defenses in preparation for the session of the country's supreme legislature which begins tomorrow.
The winter session of the Congress of Peoples' Deputies is expected to fill the Kremlin with yet another barrage of criticism of the government's radical economic reform policies. A powerful bloc of former Communists and Russian nationalists in the parliament is poised to try strip the president of his power to rule by decree and to force the resignation of the Cabinet of Acting Premier Yegor Gaidar, the architect of the reform policies.
President Yeltsin has responded with what has now become a typical combination of gestures of compromise with hints of a frontal confrontation if he is not met half-way.
Last week Yeltsin removed two of his key aides, men known for their tough stance toward the parliament and its contentious chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov. Premier Gaidar then appeared before the parliament on Thursday to present a modified economic reform plan for 1993, reflecting many, though by no means all, of the demands of the key centrist bloc Civic Union, a group that has the backing of a large part of state-run industry bosses. Compromises made
"I must honestly admit that I have made some compromises," Yeltsin said in a speech on Saturday before a meeting of Russian intellectuals, "but their nature is tactical rather than strategic. We have had some reshuffles. That was not an easy decision. But they were not dictated by any retreat from reform."
But the former Siberian Communist boss displayed his tougher side yesterday in a speech before a coalition of reform supporters, calling for them to unite to form a single party which he would join. Yeltsin has long resisted calls from radical democrats to head his own party, a move many consider key to calling new elections to oust the current parliament, elected in 1990 when the Communist Party was still the dominant force.
"If new elections are held, it doesn't mean liberal reformers will win a majority," Vice Premier Alexander Shokhin told foreign reporters on Friday, pointing to recent elections in Lithuania where the former Communists returned to power. "But if new elections are held, the government will be able to find a working majority," he predicted.
The main obstacle to overcoming the current deadlock between the president and the conservative-dominated parliament is the latter's refusal for almost two years to allow passage of a new, post-Soviet era constitution, which would then provide the basis for new elections, Mr. Shokhin says. If the Congress continues to block that, the next move might be to call a constitutional convention, formed by elected representatives at all levels, he says.
Talk of political war aside, the moves toward compromise appear already to have borne some fruit for the Yeltsin government. Parliament speaker Khasbulatov talks these days about averting confrontation, backed up by his efforts at the close of the week to block a vote that would have rejected the government's new anti-crisis program.
The Civic Union alliance, after some hemming and hawing, gave its approval on Saturday to the new program and pledged partnership with the government. The Civic Union claims to represent about 400 of the 1,040 deputies in the Congress, the country's highest legal body from which the members of the standing parliament are drawn.
Even some elements of the more hard-line antigovernment Russian Unity bloc gave grudging backing to the new program. "It's an absolutely new course," Viktor Aksyuchits, head of the Christian Democratic Movement, told the Monitor. He singled out for praise the increased support for state-run enterprises, including an exemption from profit taxes of money reinvested into production and a package of long-term investment credits, amounting to 500 billion rubles, to go to defense, agriculture, and other select ed industries.
But Mr. Aksyuchits argues that there must be a new government as well. "If the Gaidar team takes the new program without changing the team, it only means the program is discredited because it will not be carried out," he says. The young Russian nationalist politician, who claims to support market reforms and reject the return to the communist state, says Civic Union is prepared to ally with them on this point, though he worries they could defect under pressure.
The hard-line opposition intends to focus on two key issues, Aksyuchits explained. The first is to block an extension of Yeltsin's emergency powers, due to expire on Dec. 1, which give him the right to legislate by decree. The second is to gain passage of constitutional amendments needed to pass a law on government which would compel Yeltsin to submit all his Cabinet appointments, not just the premier, to parliament for approval.
The government intends to ask for emergency powers to be extended until passage of a new constitution and for rejection of the law on government. The question of further changes in the government, a price which Civic Union still seeks in exchange for its support on these two points, is likely to depend on how things go in the Congress.
If the government wins the key votes, it will submit Gaidar's name for approval as premier, after which a new Cabinet will be announced, Shokhin says. "It may be formed as a coalition if the opposition is able to demonstrate its strength in the course of the Congress," he explains.
"The majority of deputies do not belong to any big bloc and are susceptible to different pressures," says anti-government leader Aksyuchits. "Much will depend on the atmosphere in the hall at the moment. Boris Yeltsin's strong point is that he is a demagogue and a master of apparatchik intrigue."