RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin is trying to make an end run around his hard-line opponents, announcing plans yesterday to hold a constituent assembly to approve a new constitution that would dissolve the existing parliament.
Mr. Yeltsin is seeking support from the governments of the 88 regions and semi-autonomous republics that make up the Russian Federation in a bid to overcome resistance to his reforms from the conservative, Communist-dominated parliament.
In a speech to a meeting of regional leaders yesterday, Yeltsin called on them to make comments on a new draft constitution by May 20 and to name two delegates from each to a constituent assembly that would meet shortly after that to approve the document.
The Russian leader claimed that the majority approval given to himself and to his reform policies in last Sunday's referendum now gives the government a popular mandate the parliament lacks.
"Everybody must understand that the president, the government and the policy of reforms now enjoy the protection of the people," he said, according to the official Itar-Tass news report. "All decisions contradicting the will of the people, no matter who adopts them, should not be carried out and should be canceled. The Congress and the Supreme Soviet must make their choice - either to back the president's and government's course or to confront the people directly."
Yeltsin's declaration, which has been awaited since Sunday's vote, now sets the president on a collision course not only with the parliament, but likely the Constitutional Court as well, the country's highest judicial body. As happened in March, the legislature and court are certain to oppose convening the assembly as an anti-constitutional step.
The referendum only gave Yeltsin "a confirmation of his legitimacy," not a right to change the constitutional system, Constitutional Court justice Gadis Gadzhiyev told the pro-Communist daily Pravda yesterday. The right to adopt a new constitution rests solely with the Congress of People's Deputies, the country's supreme body, the justice argued. "No one has the right to change the status of Peoples Deputies without contravening the Constitution," Justice Gadzhiyev said.
Liberal court justice Vladimir Oleinik, part of a pro-Yeltsin minority on the 13-man bench, backed the president's view that the referendum has priority. The results of referendums "are juridically topmost," he told Itar-Tass. He called on the parliament members to resign voluntarily.
A new constitution would give Yeltsin a basis to call new parliamentary elections. He failed to get approval for a proposal in the referendum, due to a stringent requirement set by the Congress, that a majority of the entire electorate rather than of those who actually vote would be needed.
The draft constitution creates a strong presidential system, even stronger than that of the United States, and scraps the present two-tier legislature of the Congress and the standing Supreme Soviet drawn from its ranks. In its place will be a two-chamber legislature, with the upper chamber selected on a regional basis.
Aside from the legal obstacles to the president's strategy, the Russian leader can by no means count on the political backing of the regions. While Yeltsin received a 58 percent vote of confidence in the referendum, as well as a 53 percent backing for his reform policies, this support was by no means universal. He won the greatest backing from the Russian Far East, from large cities, and from the youth. But regions that are mostly rural either went against, or narrowly for, the president. More important,
the president failed to carry at least 14 of the 21 ethnic republics that are part of the federation. In the largest such state, the republic of Tatarstan, only 20 percent of the population even bothered to vote.
Yeltsin acknowledged in his speech that he had been defeated in a number of regions. The Russian leader is responding with an economic policy of carrots and sticks in the form of new subsidies to ease the way to rapid market reforms, but only for his supporters.
The government of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin is also drawing up a plan to distribute cheap credits on a selective basis to chosen industries, regions, and scientific institutions, Itar-Tass reported. At the same time, Mr. Chernomyrdin, in a speech to the meeting yesterday, pledged to carry out a tough anti-inflation policy of controlling government spending.
Both Chernomyrdin and Yeltsin stood by the government's program to rapidly privatize industry. On Wednesday the parliament passed a resolution expressing dissatisfaction with the privatization course. Yelstin also announced he would legalize private ownership of land, another reform long blocked by the parliament. He pledged that state agricultural credits would go to private farmers as well as to the existing structure of state and collective farms.
Yeltsin made it clear that those opposing his policies would stand at the end of the receiving line for these subsidies. "If reforms are not making progress in your region," he said, "you should not expect any hand-outs from us."