AS Russia's highest legislature opened an emergency session yesterday in the Kremlin, there was plenty of talk about compromise but little sign of it.
"I think we will find a path to compromise," Russian President Boris Yeltsin told reporters as he strode into the Grand Kremlin Palace hall. But even the president rated the chances of reaching a deal on power sharing with his opponents in the parliament as not better than "50-50."
"We are prepared to seek an agreement, but only within the framework of the Constitution," parliament chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov told the members of the Congress of Peoples' Deputies as the session opened.
From the first moments, it was clear that an enormous gap exists between the president and the Congress, elected in 1990 when the Communist Party was still the dominant political force. In several test votes, including a bid to put impeachment of the president on the agenda, the more hard-line factions of communists and their Russian nationalist allies commanded up to half of the 1,033 deputies.
"There is a chance for a compromise here, but it is diminishing," says Viktor Aksyuchits, head of the nationalist faction of the Christian Democratic movement. "Every day Yeltsin refuses to take a chance and instead chooses the path of confrontation." The Christian Democrats, along with other hard-line factions, favor early elections for the president and parliament.
The strength of the hard-liners means that even if Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Khasbulatov reach a deal, they may not be able to carry the Congress with them. "Khasbulatov cannot control the Congress as he did before," says Andrei Fyodorov, aide to Vice President Alexander Rutskoi.
In meetings with parliament members, heads of the republics that make up the giant Russian Federation, and others that continued up until Tuesday night, Yeltsin continued to offer a "constitutional agreement" that would allow the government to continue a program of economic reforms without interference from the conservative parliament. Failing such a deal, the president wants to go ahead with a popular referendum on four questions that collectively would create a new constitutional system with a strong, presidential system and a newly elected bicameral parliament. `Gloomy tunnel of reform'
This approach was soundly rejected by the parliamentary leadership. Khasbulatov accused the government of using the referendum to continue a failed policy of economic reform. "Hopes that light will appear at the end of the gloomy tunnel of reforms are being crushed," he said.
Parliament deputy chairman Nikolai Ryabov delivered a counterproposal, which calls for preserving the existing Constitution and canceling the agreement reached at the close of the last stormy Congress session in December that paired a referendum with a freeze on amendments to the Constitution. He also called for early elections for both the Congress and the president on the basis of new electoral laws not later than the spring of 1994.
"Ryabov's speech was extremely confrontational," comments radical democrat Pyotr Filipov, a deputy and also an adviser to the president. He assailed the parliament leadership and most of its members for seeking only to preserve the old system of state-run industry and collective farming from which they derive their power. "This is the essence of the confrontation," Mr. Filipov says. "It certainly doesn't lie in the battle between legislative and executive power."
Further complicating the picture, the heads of 20 of the 21 ethnic republics that make up the Russian Federation issued a statement backing the move to call off the referendum while calling on the Congress to reach an agreement with the president.
If the Congress rejects the referendum, the president's options appear limited. While there is talk of a "final option" of declaring some form of emergency rule, enforced by the Army and security police, this seems increasingly unlikely given the clear statement by the leaders of these agencies that they intend to remain neutral in this political battle. Yeltsin's few options
The president has also hinted that he might call his own nonbinding referendum, but parliament vice chairman Ryabov has already labeled such a vote "illegal." Central Bank chairman Viktor Gerashchenko, an ally of reform critics in the parliament, suggested parliament could block such a vote by not allocating money for it.
If all else fails, Yeltsin can just "state that the resolutions of the Congress, its attempts to destroy the strategy of reforms, are unacceptable," Filipov says, "and turn around and leave the hall."