Russia's Regions Resist Support for Constitution, Leave Yeltsin Few Options

PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin, faced with signs that his efforts to promulgate a new constitution have stalled, looked to regional leaders this weekend to help revive his campaign to reshape Russia's political order.

Mr. Yeltsin, who opened an Aug. 13 summit with leaders of Russia's 88 republics and regions by warning against separatism, won consent to set up a new body called the Federation Council, designed to give the territories greater say in decisionmaking in Moscow. In creating the 176-member council - each territory gets two seats - Yeltsin is clearly hoping to undermine his opponents in the Russian parliament by establishing the new body as a rival center of authority.

"This would not be just some kind of conference. It would be a legitimate organ of power," Yeltsin told the gathering in the northern city of Petrozavodsk.

Yeltsin has been under pressure lately to kick-start his drive to craft a new legal foundation for Russia that would prevent the country's break-up and protect its economic reforms.

But the creation of the new council does little to resolve the deadlock that has arisen in recent weeks over the most bitter and contentious issue facing Yeltsin's constitution-drafters: how to divide powers between the central authorities and the autonomous republics and regions that make up the Russian Federation.

Under existing laws the 20 republics, or nominal ethnic homelands, have privileged status within the federation, even though they account for only a relatively small proportion of Russia's population. In theory at least, the republics have control over natural resources on their territories and have considerable independence from Moscow in managing their economic affairs.

The 68 regions, which have none of these special rights, are demanding the same dispensation as the republics.

Yeltsin is offering a compromise. In his draft constitution, the republics will be called "sovereign states," and allowed to adopt the trappings of statehood - citizenship, national languages, state symbols, and constitutions of their own. The regions have been promised eventual equality in economic terms, though they would still have the political status of ordinary provinces.

NEITHER side is happy with this formula. Several republics - led by oil-rich Tatarstan - are pushing for still greater autonomy. The regions, meanwhile, are showing their displeasure by refusing to even consider Yeltsin's draft constitution, let alone approve it. Several regions have defied Yeltsin by unilaterally upgrading themselves into republics.

"The regions all insist on not only economic but political equality of all subjects of the federation," says Alexander Sobyanin, a political analyst who is a member of the Constitutional Assembly that Yeltsin set up June 5 to finalize his new charter. He said none of the regional legislatures, whose approval Yeltsin needs to get his draft adopted into law, would give its blessing to the draft in its current form.

"The constitution as such is at a dead end," he says.

A consensus is growing among members of the Constitutional Assembly, including even loyal Yeltsin supporters, that work on the new Basic Law should be abandoned for the time being.

Instead, Mr. Sobyanin says, Yeltsin should focus his energies on bringing about early parliamentary elections this fall that would sweep away most of the communist-era holdovers in the existing legislature who are blocking reform. It is not clear how Yeltsin can accomplish even this. Last week the Russian president threatened to call parliamentary elections for this fall if the parliament refused to move up the elections scheduled for 1995. But by law, only the parliament can call elections.

Yeltsin's hard-line adversaries, meanwhile, have raised the stakes in the battle for political supremacy in Russia. On Aug. 12, parliament gave preliminary approval to amendments to Russia's existing Soviet-era Constitution that would strip Yeltsin of most of his powers, leaving him little more than a figurehead. To become law, the amendments must be passed by parliament, which is due to meet in November.

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