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Yeltsin Suffers Crushing Defeat in Vote Restricting His Power

By John-Thor Dahlburg
Los Angeles Times


President Boris N. Yeltsin, his authority at its lowest ebb, was assailed Thursday by Russia's parliament chief and abandoned by the nation's top judge. His allies warned that a law awaiting final approval Friday could prove fatal to Russian reforms.

The Congress of People's Deputies voted 672-116 in principle for a law to restrict presidential powers, in effect resolving the tug-of-war between Yeltsin and the legislature squarely in favor of the latter and its chief, Ruslan I. Khasbulatov. The law includes points that Yeltsin's spokesman said were totally unacceptable.

"Some clauses destroy everything," Vyacheslav V. Kostikov said of the prospect of continuing the reforms to move Russia from a centrally directed to a market economy.

"If they adopt this resolution tomorrow (Friday), it's the beginning of the end," pro-Yeltsin deputy Leonid B. Gurevich of Murmansk predicted glumly.

Others, including government officials, were far less apocalyptic, noting that, although Yeltsin's foes showed that they have enough votes to amputate his powers, he bargained to win greater executive control over fiscal and budgetary policy.

"For the government, anything that will allow it to work more calmly is acceptable," Economics Minister Andrei A. Nechayev said.

As debate in the 1,033-member parliament rolled on in a cream-toned hall of the Kremlin, Kostikov dropped a hint that Yeltsin could call out the police or the army to enforce presidential rule if the Congress persists and cuts back his powers.

"I would like to draw your attention to a small detail you may have missed. When the president entered the meeting hall today, first of all he greeted [Defense Minister Pavel S.] Grachev, [Security Minister Viktor P.] Barranikov and [Interior Minister Victor F.] Yerin," Kostikov said.

And in Washington, there were reports from U.S. officials that Yeltsin has warned world leaders that, as a last resort, he may dissolve the Congress and assume emergency powers. In a stern 20-minute address to deputies in which his appeals for compromise proved in vain, Yeltsin said: "The Congress must choose between cooperation and confrontation. It's either/or."

But the Congress, a Soviet-era creation largely hostile to his radical recipes for the country's transformation to a market system, went ahead and voted to cut back his powers anyway.

Chances for the 62-year-old president to alter their eight-point resolution Friday seemed scant, given the triumph of an anti-Yeltsin coalition that combined Khasbulatov and other members of the parliament's Presidium, opposition moderates, Communists and anti-Western xenophobes.

Calling the collapsed truce that he had reached with Yeltsin in December "the devil's work," Khasbulatov, who was largely non-committal when the Congress began Wednesday, demanded that deputies cancel that deal.

If the deputies confirm Thursday's vote when the time comes for definitive action on the draft version of the law, Yeltsin would also be deprived of the nationwide referendum, now scheduled for April 11, that he wanted both as a first step toward creating a U.S.-style presidency and as a recourse if the Congress refuses to give him what he wants.

Yeltsin supporters said he might go ahead anyway with a non-binding plebiscite to prove the breadth of his popular support.

"Yeltsin's power is in the people. Nobody can stop Yeltsin or the democrats from getting down to the people," Foreign Minister Kozyrev said in a CNN interview after the Congress adjourned for the day. "We are fully determined. We will not give up to those who want chaos and disintegration in the country."

Constitutional amendments passed at the last Congress in December would also go into force that would sap Yeltsin's powers in relation to the legislature's, including granting it the right to annul his decrees.

If Yeltsin were to try to disband parliament, a step that hard-line deputies charge he is planning under what he has darkly referred to as the "final variation," another reactivated amendment would bring about his automatic impeachment.

In lunch-time negotiating sessions also attended by Khasbulatov and Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, Yeltsin managed to amend the original draft resolution to allow the heads of the Central Bank, State Statistics Committee, State Property Fund and other key economic agencies to sit on Chernomyrdin's Council of Ministers, or Cabinet, while remaining subordinated to parliament.

The Russian government budget, which now can be drawn up without input from Chernomyrdin's ministries, would henceforth have to take account of their views.

"The project as it stands at least gives us the possibility to continue the reforms," said Radical Democratic leader Pyotr S. Filippov, a Yeltsin supporter, as he tried to put the best face on the day's developments. "The president keeps power in the government. The government, moreover, gets what it needs _ that is, the possibility to get control of the Property Fund and, the most important question, of the Central Bank."

However, in a country that keenly watches the rise and fall of leaders, citizens will probably be struck first by Yeltsin's obvious lack of clout in his failure to obtain the deal he wanted, whatever the ramifications for economic policy.

"To be honest, his position is desperate, because he is strictly limited now in his options," said Galina V. Starovoitova, a former Yeltsin adviser.