TRYING to maneuver through a barrage of angry rhetoric, Russian President Boris Yeltsin probed for a deal yesterday with the conservative-dominated Russian Congress of People's Deputies.
But the Congress proved to be a stubborn negotiating partner. Complicated negotiations produced a revision of the Congress' version of a draft power sharing arrangement. But not everyone appeared satisfied with the proposed agreement, which could considerably diminish the president's powers.
The draft resolution declares "null and void" decisions made at a December session of the legislature, including an agreement to hold a constitutional referendum next month touted by Mr. Yeltsin. The president would also lose his sole right to initiate legislation, while the parliament would gain the ability to overturn presidential decrees.
Those proposals are unacceptable to the president, says his spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov. The calling off of the April referendum would be a blow to the president, who has championed the idea of a plebiscite. He has said it would be the only constitutional way to end the struggle between the executive and legislative branches of government, if a power sharing arrangement cannot be reached.
Some presidential advisers, however, called the draft "acceptable." One aide, Andranik Migranyan, told the Monitor Yeltsin was pleased that the revised draft removed language that would have reduced the president's status to that of a figurehead. Mr. Migranyan said the president did not stand to lose significant power.
In addition, the draft resolution offers a concession to the president by giving the government the freedom it has sought to carry out reforms. The draft calls for the heads of the Russian Central Bank, as well as the state committees for property, statistics, and pension fund to be brought into the Cabinet. It also gives the government an increased voice in budgetary decisions.
The proposed incorporation of the Central Bank chairman has been condemned by ultrarightist deputies as unconstitutional. The bank's chief, Viktor Gerashchenko, has been a favorite of the ultraright for granting widespread credits to failing Russian industrial enterprises, a contradiction of the government's tight fiscal policies.
The hard-liners are seeking to reverse reforms entirely. One conservative, Mikhail Chelnikov, called for the president's impeachment, saying Yeltsin's actions "aren't in accordance with the Constitution."
The silver-haired Russian leader, looking unusually tired and dispirited, his voice resonating with exhaustion, opened the second day of the Congress session with a plea for compromise.
"I am prepared for any dialogue, for any concord in any legal form, whether an agreement, a resolution of the Congress, a law on power, or an amendment to the constitution, that would balance the branches of power," Yeltsin said. "I am ready for honest and equal cooperation in order to move step by step to meet each other halfway."
Yet the parliament, led by its mercurial chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, immediately spurned the president. They resoundingly voted down the president's proposal for a power sharing agreement, supporting instead the draft prepared by the parliamentary leadership.
During the tempestuous session, the president received backing from his prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, a former Soviet gas-industry bureaucrat who came to power after the conservative parliament ousted economic reform architect Yegor Gaidar last December. The premier argued that a "free hand" be given to his government to pursue economic reforms, albeit in a more cautious form.
Mr. Chernomyrdin supported the president in calling for a "clear-cut balanced division of power" with a strong presidency at its core. "It is strong presidential power that acts as the guarantor of the implementation of economic reforms," he said.
Mr. Khasbulatov then launched a rambling, but vicious attack on the president and his government. He called on the Congress to approve a proposed resolution on a power sharing deal prepared by the drafting commission. Khasbulatov went on to call for the removal of Privatization Minister Anatoly Chubais and derided Chernomyrdin, saying he was not in control of the government.
The draft resolution proposed by Yeltsin was a clear bid to block the conservative parliament, which is still dominated by former Communists, from reversing the radical economic reforms launched last year. It called for the transfer to the Cabinet of control over federal property and the monetary and credit systems, including the Central Bank, which is under parliamentary direction.
All budget decisions made by the president or the parliament would require approval of the government.
Though his resolution was summarily rejected by deputies, Yeltsin's conciliatory speech kept alive the possibility of keeping reforms more or less on track, Yeltsin supporters say.
One tactic of the ultraright, which is intent on reversing reforms, is to provoke Yeltsin into making an impulsive move that would discredit him, such as an attempted imposition of a state of emergency, says Vladimir Lysenko, a liberal deputy and leader of the Republican Party.
"He who makes the first move will be immediately crushed and the other side will win," Mr. Lysenko says, referring to "extreme" measures. Army leaders have said they intend to remain neutral in the political battle.
"Only flexible tactics can prevent us from reaching the critical point beyond which irreversible processes will lead to a nationalist dictatorial regime or a Communist regime," Lysenko adds.
Up to now Yeltsin has not given any indication of going for the ultraright's bait. For example, presidential spokesman Kostikov said that Yeltsin would not respond to Khasbulatov's attack. "Why should he react to the hysterics of the speaker?" Kostikov asks.