JUST when it looked like President Boris Yeltsin would be swamped by hard-line opposition, the Russian leader turned the tide on his political foes, engineering a compromise with parliament that should keep economic reforms on course at least through the winter.
The agreement defusing Russia's most serious political crisis since the failed coup of August 1991 was worked out during a weekend negotiating session involving Mr. Yeltsin, Ruslan Khasbulatov, Speaker of the rambunctious parliament, and Constitutional Court Chairman Valery Zorkin.
The main provisions of the compromise call for a nationwide referendum to be held April 11 on the adoption of a new constitution, and another vote in the Congress of People's Deputies, Russia's highest legislative body, to confirm a prime minister.
"There will be no collision, no coup, no other anti-constitutional actions." Yeltsin said. "This means the people can live in peace."
In reaching a deal with Mr. Khasbulatov, Yeltsin appeared to be making the best of an increasingly difficult situation at the Congress. At its winter session the legislature had voted consistently to block reform measures, including rejecting Acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar in his first confirmation vote last week. Many deputies hold Mr. Gaidar responsible for causing drastic drops in industrial production and living standards.
Following the Congress's rebuff of Gaidar, Yeltsin sparked the political crisis by launching an all-out assault on the conservative body. He called for a popular referendum that could have led to new parliamentary and presidential elections. But it quickly became apparent that Yeltsin lacked the political strength to carry out his plan.
Large segments of Russian society gave the referendum idea only a lukewarm reception. Meanwhile, the Congress counterattacked swiftly, passing a constitutional amendment limiting nationwide referendums, particularly on the early termination of powers of executive, legislative, and judicial bodies. The compromise nullified the amendment.
His back to the wall, Yeltsin dumped Gennady Burbulis, his long-time friend and closest adviser, in the hope of appeasing his hard-line opponents. But the move did not satisfy many deputies seeking to significantly slow the reform process.
Angry protests echoed through the Grand Kremlin Palace as Khasbulatov forced a vote on his deal with Yeltsin without any debate. It narrowly won approval.
Congressional hard-liners complained bitterly about being betrayed by the parliament Speaker. "It's a plot between Yeltsin and Khasbulatov," says Ilya Konstantinov, a leader of the banned National Salvation Front, a grouping of communist and nationalist groups.
Indeed, the deal benefited Yeltsin greatly by driving a wedge between hard-liners and centrists, who comprise the largest voting bloc at the Congress. Until Saturday's compromise vote, the centrists had consistently sided with the hard-liners in opposing Yeltsin supporters.
"Victory seemed so close for them, and the results of their actions seemed so convincing," presidential aide Sergei Stankevich says of the hard-liners. "But now we have come back to a balance."
Maintaining that political balance will not be easy for Yeltsin, who has lost the aura of invincibility that allowed him to dominate previous Congress sessions.
The compromise will face a test today in the selection of prime minister. According to the deal, Yeltsin may select one person for confirmation from three candidates endorsed by the Congress. If the parliament rejects his nominee, Yeltsin can appoint the prime minister on an interim basis until the next legislative session scheduled for April.
Yeltsin has already said he would reappoint Gaidar, who is likely to be among the three congressional candidates. Other possible candidates mentioned at the Congress included: Security Council Chairman Yuri Skokov, Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, Deputy Prime Minister Georgy Khizha, and Russian Ambassador to France Yuri Ryzhov.
Retaining Gaidar as prime minister could help revive Yeltsin's forces heading into the April referendum on a new constitution.
The April plebiscite could lead to the elimination of the Congress - something akin to what Yeltsin sought with his proposed referendum on new elections, which was abandoned as part of the compromise.
Under the current draft of the new constitution, the Congress would be replaced by a bicameral standing parliament. Hard-liners, however, still can revise the draft constitution before its finalization. And judging by many hard-liners' reaction to the compromise, it is unlikely they will abandon efforts to roll back reforms, says Mr. Stankevich, the presidential adviser.
"Unfortunately we can't say we have avoided for long the risk of confrontation," he says. "This could be a temporary peace."