Yeltsin Retreats, Trying to Avert Impeachment

Parliament rejects compromise, but hard-line leaders may lack the votes to topple president

RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin, in a tactical maneuver aimed at disarming plans for his impeachment, has backed off from his declaration of "special rule."

In a decree published yesterday, the Russian president retreated considerably from the challenge to his conservative opponents in the parliament delivered March 20 in a dramatic nationally televised speech. He dropped all attempts to impose a rule by decree over the head of the parliament and the regional governments that make up the giant Russian Federation.

The president still plans to hold a national vote of confidence on his rule on April 25 and a simultaneous vote on both a new constitution and a draft law on the election of a federal parliament. But in contrast to his speech, the decree no longer insists that a positive vote would mean the immediate dissolution of the existing Congress of Peoples Deputies, the country's supreme legislature, and the Supreme Soviet, its standing parliament.

The president appears to hope that the compromise document will at least deflect enough votes to block an impeachment bid. But in a political culture where any concession is interpreted as a sign of weakness, it did nothing to stop the political war.

A meeting yesterday afternoon between President Yeltsin, parliament chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, and the chairman of the Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin, yielded no progress.

"The sides stuck to their positions," presidential spokesman Anatoly Krasikov said.

"Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin] didn't correctly assess the situation in the country and in the deputy corps," Mr. Khasbulatov told parliament following the meeting.

In subdued tones, Khasbulatov made clear that he intends to move ahead with a planned meeting of the Congress on March 26 to consider the impeachment of the president. The decision to call the meeting follows the March 23 ruling of the Constitutional Court, the supreme judicial body, that the president's March 20 appeal was in violation of the Constitution. According to the Constitution, the Congress can now, by a two-thirds vote, remove the president from office.

But even fierce opponents of the president are not sure of having enough votes. "There is no firm guarantee that the Congress will be able to collect the two-thirds votes needed to impeach the president, but we have hope," says hard-line deputy Mikhail Chelnokov. Yeltsin loyalists

The president's supporters both inside and outside the parliament were on the offensive yesterday, targeting both Khasbulatov and Mr. Zorkin for themselves violating legal procedure and concealing a bid for power behind a legal facade.

"The regulations of the Supreme Soviet are being violated, the Constitutional Court itself violates the law," charged Lev Ponomaryev, a leader of the Democratic Russia movement. "We are living in a state of a coup dtat.... Khasbulatov and Zorkin are two people with unsatisfied ambitions, who imagine themselves to be Napoleons, that are possessed by messianic ideas of saving Russia."

The president's new decree appears aimed at forcing a positive court reappraisal, softening key aspects that the court found unconstitutional, while preserving the April 25 vote. The president's advisers believe that the vote, even if it is not binding, will give him enough of a popular mandate to again attempt to dissolve the existing Congress and parliament, along with the Constitution, all of which are considered relics of the Communist era.

Even before the decree appeared, Zorkin was trying to soften his harsh opposition to the president. "If you look at our ruling, you will notice that we do not demand resignation," Zorkin told the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda. "It is up to the Congress to make such a decision. However, a lot depends on how both the Congress and the president assess the situation. I believe they should meet each other half-way." Room to maneuver

Yeltsin had left himself some maneuvering room by failing to officially publish the decree after the March 20 speech. Many observers saw this as a calculated game, giving the president time to see the reaction and to adjust his decree accordingly.

In the published decree, Yeltsin drops all reference to the term "special rule," even stating that the Russian Foreign Ministry is to tell foreign governments that the measures in the decree "are not emergency rule." He gives the Constitutional Court the authority to rule in any case where the parliament or regional governments seek to overturn his decrees.

Yeltsin also attempts to defuse the growing resistance to his rule from the regional and ethnic republican governments, many of whom have already openly sided with the parliament. He drops an earlier insistence that regional administrations be totally subordinated to him, rather than to their regional parliaments.

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