HIS political opponents in retreat, Russian President Boris Yeltsin is poised to try to steamroll his draft of a new constitution through a specially convened assembly that opens tomorrow in the Kremlin.
The meeting has been organized in the spirit of the old-style Communist Party gatherings that Mr. Yeltsin attended throughout his long career as a Communist bureaucrat - the appearance of broad public representation combined with top-down organization.
Yeltsin seems determined not to allow the kind of political resistance and turmoil that has characterized the meetings of the standing parliament and its parent, the Congress of People's Deputies.
"We will not allow political chatter as at the Congress," Yeltsin told reporters during a visit to the Kaluga region on June 1. "There will be a precise and rigid agenda."
In a decree issued the next day, Yeltsin defined a procedure and a structure designed to march the conference toward adoption of the final text of a proposed constitution on June 16. From there, Yeltsin and his advisers offer a number of possible routes to gaining adoption of the constitution, not all of them clearly legal under existing law.
But all may not go according to Yeltsin's plan. The draft faces tough opposition on two key issues - its proposed creation of a hugely powerful presidency, combined with a weak parliament, and its proposed division of powers between the central government and the 88 regions and ethnic republics that make up the giant Russian Federation.
The Yeltsin vision of a presidential republic provides the head of state with not only extensive powers to rule by decree, but also the power to dissolve the parliament. The parliament, which has supported the draft drawn up over the past two years in the Constitutional Commission nominally headed by Yeltsin, proposes more limited powers, though not less than those of an American or French president.
The powerful presidency disturbs even supporters of the president who warn against creating an institution that could be used at another time to reverse, not promote, democratic and market reforms.
"I don't believe the constitution can be written only on the basis of the assumption that the president of Russia will always be democratic, will always be a champion of human rights," former Premier Yegor Gaidar, the architect of Yeltsin's economic reforms, told reporters this week. Power to the regions
The draft also has been heavily criticized for giving undue concessions of autonomy and power to the 23 ethnically defined republics that are part of the federation, at the expense of the majority Russian regions. Many worry that republics such as oil-rich Tatarstan will use this as an opportunity to break away from Russia, seeking control over tax, budget, and even monetary policies within their borders.
Finance Minister Boris Fyodorov, while basically supporting the draft, expresses concern that republican autonomy could end up destroying efforts at economic reform and threaten Russian unity.
"I do not believe that there can be states inside Russia with their own central bank which do not pay money into the budget," Fyodorov told a gathering of foreign reporters on June 2. "It could lead to civil war."
The self-appointed Constitutional Assembly is supposed to finalize the text of a proposed constitution after considering almost 2,000 amendments offered from politicians, regional governments, and others. More than half of the 762 delegates represent the republics and territories, with the rest drawn from the central government and the parliament and from parties, public movements, and state and private business.
According to Yeltsin's decree, the entire group will gather only on the first day to hear speeches by Yeltsin and others. They will then divide into five working groups: of federal officials; of regional and republican administrations; of regional and local legislatures; of parties, unions, and other public movements; and of manufacturers and private businessmen.
Each group, with co-chairmen already carefully chosen by Yeltsin, will conduct majority votes on the amendments, referring their results to a working commission that will in turn draw up a final draft to be considered at a concluding plenary session.
Echoing Soviet Communist Party congresses, both the proceedings and the delegates themselves will be largely inaccessible to the media. Russian reporters will be restricted to a separate press area so as not to "hamper the work of commissions," explained Presidential Chief of Staff Sergei Filatov. Foreign news media are being largely excluded on the grounds of lack of space. Making it legal
Assuming he emerges with an acceptable constitution, Yeltsin's next task will be to find a way to put it into force. One path is the legal one - approval by the Congress of People's Deputies - but that is only likely if Yeltsin is confident he can control that body. The president has outlined three other options: electing a special constituent assembly to adopt a constitution; holding a referendum; or holding elections to a new parliament that would adopt the constitution in October.