A WEEK into the meeting of Russia's Constitutional Assembly, President Boris Yeltsin is countering serious challenges to his draft constitution.
The most public assault comes from parliament chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, who in an angry speech on Wednesday dismissed the new constitution as "a revolutionary rejection of all Russian traditions."
Khasbulatov refused an invitation to speak to a specially convened plenary session of the assembly yesterday, citing a sudden illness. Taking the moment, President Yeltsin moved to strike a bargain with a key part of the parliamentary leadership that has broken with Mr. Khasbulatov. Speaking to the assembly, he eased his earlier tough call to dismantle the Communist-era system of soviets, or councils, which function as pseudo-legislatures at all levels.
Yeltsin said he does not support "any revolutionary actions toward the soviets." Instead he suggested that soviets could be "smoothly" transformed into normal legislatures.
Yeltsin also offered to create an "arbitration commission" composed of senior judges and lawyers to resolve deadlocks over key constitutional issues. He proposed to allow parliament deputies, as well as the republics and regions that are part of the Russian Federation, to initial the final version of the constitution and he left the door open to the demand from many parliamentary and regional soviet leaders to adopt the constitution through the existing parliament.
Yeltsin's most serious problem is posed by the leaders of the ethnic republics in the Russian Federation, who demand significant autonomy in exchange for their support. Republican leaders are warning Yeltsin that any attempt to impose a constitution not to their liking could lead to the breakup of Russia itself.
"We have grown out of the pants of a unitary state, there can be no return. Any attempt is extremely risky and will lead to a Yugoslavia scenario," Viktor Stepanov, chairman of the soviet of the autonomous republic of Karelia, told the Sovietskaya Rossiya daily June 8. Mr. Stepanov is a key figure among the leaders of the 20 republics, picked by Yeltsin as a co-chairman of the Constitutional Assembly, which convened June 5.
Yeltsin has actively courted the republics, making the Federation Treaty signed last year a part of his draft constitution and promising to support passage of a law that will spell out the concrete mechanism for division of powers between the central and republican governments. But the Russian leader is being squeezed from the other side by the governments of the Russian-populated regions, who demand equal political and equal rights with the republics, as well as by key constituencies such as businessmen
who worry that autonomy will be used to block market economic reforms.
The Federation Treaty recognizes the republics as sovereign with significant authority within their own boundaries, including ownership of resources. Two republics - Tatarstan and Chechnya - have refused to even sign that treaty. The republics, which were formed during the Bolshevik era as a gesture to national minorities, have distinct rights beyond those of the regions, territories, and smaller ethnic autonomous areas that make up the other 88 "subjects" of the federation. The new draft constitution gi ves the republics further political rights by granting them half the seats in the powerful upper house of a new two-chamber parliament, far greater than their actual proportion of the population.
The demand for an equal political and economic status for the regions was strongly voiced even before the assembly began. In earlier discussions of a new constitution, many Russian politicians advocated getting rid of the system of ethnic republics and restoring the pre-revolutionary division of the country into territorial units.
The Russian majority has been backed since the assembly began by key aides to Yeltsin. "It is clear we should equalize the status of territories and regions to the status of republics within the Russian federation in the sphere of economy, laws, guarantees of rights, and freedoms of citizens on the territories of these subjects," Vice Premier Sergei Shakrai told reporters on June 8. Mr. Shakrai, a key strategist in the Constitutional Assembly, supported equal representation in the parliament.
Shakrai later told Russian television that the businessmen who are participating as one of the five constituency groups at the 762-person Assembly are strongly opposed to giving greater autonomy to the republics.
"All of them want a unitarian state with no borders, customs, or excessive obstacles in the way of market formation and the flow of goods," Shakrai said.
Republican leaders strongly reject this view, particularly the call to give equal political rights to the regions. "Russia is called a federation precisely for the reason that it incorporates sovereign republics," North Ossetia Supreme Soviet chairman Akhsarbek Galazov told the independent Interfax news agency. "Making everybody equal would be a legal and political error."
In a meeting with republican leaders on Tuesday, Yeltsin was far from ready to take such a stance. "Only the president appreciates the position of the republics," Komi Republic Supreme Soviet chairman Yuri Spiridonov told Interfax.