As Russian Charter Enters Home Stretch, Scandal Charges Fly

THE closer President Boris Yeltsin says he gets to his long-sought goal of a new Russian Constitution, the more elusive it seems to be.

For more than three weeks the Constitutional Assembly, the special body convened by Mr. Yeltsin, has labored to synthesize a new Basic Law. But despite progress on some issues, the assembly appears bogged down over a formula for dividing Russia's federal powers. Leaders from both the autonomous republics - nominal ethnic homelands - and the Russian-dominated regions are criticizing the proposed formula, saying it does not sufficiently protect their respective interests.

Yeltsin, at a plenary session of the Constitutional Assembly last weekend, played down the problem. He declared a new draft Constitution was nearly ready. Many political analysts here are not so optimistic. The results "shouldn't arouse premature euphoria among the proponents of radical political and economic reforms," analyst Konstantin Katanian wrote in the Kuranty daily. "It is precisely at the last stage that the Assembly may stall."

Yeltsin says a new Basic Law is needed to replace the Communist-era Constitution, protecting Russia's political and economic reforms by replacing the current conservative-dominated Parliament with a two-chamber legislature. Riding the wave of popular support gained from an April referendum, the president smothered opposition and convened the Assembly on June 5.

But the window of opportunity for Yeltsin to bully through a new Basic Law may be closing. After months of cowering from the referendum results, the Parliament is again becoming feisty. Late last week, the legislature pounded the executive branch with charges of widespread corruption in the top levels of government, singling out Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Shumeiko and Federal Information Center chief Mikhail Poltoranin.

Both Mr. Shumeiko and Mr. Poltoranin vehemently deny the allegations, and Yeltsin calls the accusation an attempt to "spark a government crisis, raise a new wave of social tension, and compromise the work of the Constitutional Assembly." This is, in fact, what anti-Yeltsin forces intend, and the tactic appears to be working. Regardless of whether the corruption charges are accurate, Yeltsin must devote valuable time to damage control.

The potential scandal already is distracting politicians in both the executive and legislative branches, with the mutual recriminations detracting from the constitutional debate. And there are indications that Russia's republics and regions are growing restless with the Constitutional Assembly.

Yeltsin advocates a federative structure that would define the republics as "sovereign states" and the regions as "state-territorial formations." Both republics and regions would enjoy the same economic rights. But many republics are unhappy with the formula, feeling the central government is trying to renege on previous commitments to give them greater autonomy. One influential republic, Tatarstan, even voted to withdraw its delegation from the Constitutional Assembly. But Tatar representatives neverthe less attended Saturday's plenary session.

Regional leaders, meanwhile, think the formula gives the autonomous republics too many political privileges in respect to their economic potential. Many industrialized regions, such as Novosibirsk, contribute far more economically to the Russian Federation than do most autonomous republics.

One regional leader, Krasnoyarsk's Valery Novikov, warned the Assembly that "there are two trains now - that of the republics and that of the regions - and they're on a collision course."

In response to the situation, leaders in the industrialized Ural region of Sverdlovsk say they will discuss in July establishing an "autonomous region," the Interfax news agency reported. That could give rise to a "Ural Republic," also incorporating other important Siberian regions, including Perm and Chelyabinsk, the Sverdlovsk leaders added.

Such a development would accelerate the centrifugal forces pulling at Russia, and is precisely what Yeltsin is trying to avoid.

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