PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin's thrust to adopt a new constitution has smashed the power base of his chief political rival, parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov.
Mr. Khasbulatov now finds himself on shaky political ground, as support for his leadership of the Supreme Soviet, or parliament, erodes sharply. Observers say he is destined to fade from the political scene soon.
But Khasbulatov's loss is not translating into large gains for the president, experts add. Mr. Yeltsin's team, while trying to create the impression that the nation backs his draft of a new constitution, in reality is being forced to back off earlier positions.
The big winners in the constitutional debate are shaping up as Russia's regions and autonomous areas, which are wielding increasing influence in the run-up to a Constitutional Assembly. The Assembly, to comprise representatives from across Russia, is scheduled to begin to discuss revisions to the drafts on June 5.
Yeltsin hopes a new constitution will grant the president sweeping powers and break the political stalemate between the executive and legislative branches that is paralyzing economic reforms. In his rush to adopt a new Basic Law, the president is depending heavily on the support of the regions and autonomous republics.
But by relying on the regions, Yeltsin could be digging his own grave in much the same way former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's fate was sealed by his ill-fated attempt to conclude a new union treaty during 1991.
"As the political struggle [deepens] and more concessions to the territories are made, this process could render the central authorities a useless fiction and ultimately lead to Russia's breakup," says Vladimir Pribilovsky, a political scientist at Moscow's Panorama Information Center. The territories are already flexing their muscle, throwing Yeltsin's team on the defensive. Originally the president hoped the Assembly would finalize the wording of the Basic Law, and then adopt it, thus bypassing the Con gress of People's Deputies, which has opposed any new constitution.
But Yeltsin's hopes for quick passage were set back last week, when 11 of the nation's 22 autonomous ethnic republics issued a statement rejecting his draft constitution. The republics said the president's document did not sufficiently protect their rights, as outlined in the Federation Treaty signed last year.
And the leaders of some powerful Russian oblasts or regions - including Siberia's Novosibirsk and Irkutsk - criticize the draft as favoring the autonomous areas. They insist all regions enjoy the same status and rights.
The presidential draft received much negative feedback during a cross-country promotional tour by Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Shakhrai, Yeltsin's point-man in the constitutional offensive.
Mr. Shakhrai indicated the president had effectively been forced to abandon plans for the assembly to adopt a new Constitution, because of regional opposition. Shakhrai also admitted that the general consensus held that Yeltsin's draft constitution should be merged with a version prepared by parliament's Constitutional Commission.
Merging the two documents would threaten Yeltsin's ability to secure a strong presidency, as outlined in his draft. The parliamentary version provides for supremacy of the legislative branch.
As for Khasbulatov - who has led the opposition's effort against Yeltsin - the adoption of any new constitution seems to spell the end of his tenure.
The defection of deputy speakers Nikolai Ryabov and Veniamin Sokolov from Khasbulatov's camp indicate that a struggle to lead a new, post-election parliament is already underway, he says. Messrs. Ryabov and Sokolov, as well as other parliamentary leaders, have broken with Khasbulatov by expressing limited support for the president's constitutional plans.
Many parliament members have long considered Khasbulatov's leadership inadequate, labeling the speaker an opportunist, interested only in retaining power. Khasbulatov, seeming to recognize that his days are numbered, is defending himself from such charges. "I completely dislike serving as speaker," he told journalists recently. "If I do it, it's only because I've always been used to trying my hardest."
As prospects dim for a fast realization of Yeltsin's plan, the debate seems to be shifting from the content of the Basic Law to the method for its adoption. Yeltsin's supporters may push for a national referendum or new parliamentary elections to win backing for a favorable constitution.