RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin opened his Constitutional Assembly with a revolutionary call to sweep away the remnants of the Communist-era political system, including the local and national soviets (councils), which remain the country's legislatures.
"The Soviet model of power cannot be reformed," Mr. Yeltsin said Saturday in an opening speech in the Kremlin hall where the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee once held secretive meetings. "The soviets and democracy are incompatible."
Yeltsin sought a basis for his own authority in the pre-Bolshevik era, evoking the precedents of Czars Peter the Great and Alexander II, as well as the republican revolution of February 1917. The former Communist Party Politburo member dismissed the Bolsheviks' October 1917 revolution and what followed as a usurpation of that "republican" tradition.
"Russia has never had authority that was bound by law," Yeltsin said. "On the contrary, everything stemming from the authorities was automatically declared to be law. It was only needed to sanction the party and state dictatorship."
The challenge to the legitimacy of the national parliament and its local counterparts took a more direct form when Yeltsin barred parliament chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov from taking the podium to pronounce his own view of constitutional order. Drowned out by shouts and rhythmic clapping after he tried to speak anyway, Mr. Khasbulatov stalked angrily from the hall, along with about 50 supporters.
"We are on the road to dictatorship," Khasbulatov later told reporters.
"What we have seen is how a court crowns a king," said Constitutional Court chairman Valery Zorkin. "Shall we build a democratic state in this way?"
Khasbulatov got partial backing from the heads of 16 of the 23 ethnic republics that are part of the Russian Federation. The ethnic leaders warned both sides against "hasty actions" and offered to broker peace between them. The republics, along with the Russian-populated regional governments, have emerged as the key power brokers in Yeltsin's effort to push through his new draft constitution.
Yeltsin appears confident that he will gain approval for the draft document from the 762 delegates representing federal and local governments and legislatures.
Controversy is expected to focus on two key issues - what some consider to be the overly extensive powers granted the president and the proposed division of authority between the central government and the 88 regions and ethnic republics in the Russian Federation. Concessions on both these fronts were indicated in Yeltsin's opening statement, as well as the following speech by Sergei Alexeyev, the principal author of the draft.
Mr. Alexeyev acknowledged the need to amend the articles on presidential power to ease concerns, particularly regarding the relatively unchecked right of the president, in the current draft, to dissolve the parliament. Yeltsin claimed the draft constitution provides for sufficient balance of power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The president is limited by the right of the parliament to impeach him and by the Constitutional Court's ability to reverse his decisions.
The president also was at pains to pay heed to the division of authority within the federal structure, arguing that the balance of power is assured by the fact that neither president nor parliament can interfere in the rights of republics and regions.
Yeltsin also has to be careful not to alienate the powerful heads of the Russian-majority regions, who for their part have been critical of too much power going to the ethnic republics, fearing this could lead to a breakup of Russia. Yeltsin told the assembly that the right to national self-determination is "not absolute" and is limited by the right of the entire Russian society to preserve a single state.
Support from the republics and regions is key to Yeltsin's strategy for putting the constitution, once approved, into effect. Under the existing Soviet-era Constitution, only the Congress of People's Deputies, a higher legislature, can do this. The Constitutional Assembly called by Yeltsin is supposedly only a consultative body, leaving approval of the draft to some other forum.
Yeltsin left little doubt that he was prepared to bypass the Congress, calling the assembly a "fully legitimate forum" whose decision could not be altered. The authority of the final draft would be strengthened by having the regions and republics sign it.
If the Congress and the standing parliament drawn from its ranks do not yield, Yeltsin's plan is to push through a new parliamentary election by October. An election law, reflecting the two-chamber parliament called for in the president's draft constitution, is being prepared.
Mr. Khasbulatov and his supporters will try to assert their views through the existing institutions. One possibility, which Khasbulatov outlined to reporters, is to submit to Congress an alternative draft constitution prepared by the parliament's constitutional commission.