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Yeltsin Challenges Russian Parliamentary Conservatives

By Margaret Shapiro
The Washington Post

MOSCOW

President Boris Yeltsin, bolstered by his solid victory in last Sunday's vote of confidence, threw a direct challenge at Russia's conservative parliament Thursday by asking regional leaders to bypass the legislature and help formulate a new, Western-style constitution.

Yeltsin, declaring that Russia has "neither the time nor the strength" for more political battles, presented leaders of Russia's 88 semi-autonomous republics and regions with a draft of his proposed constitution, which would replace the Soviet-era document now governing the country and create a new parliament. He also asked them to select delegates for a constitutional convention in late May or early June.

Yeltsin's announcement that he will forge ahead unilaterally with his own constitution provided the first sign of the leader's post-referendum strategy for dealing with the country's debilitating power struggle. With this move, likely to cause a storm of protest in parliament, Yeltsin made clear that his attempts to compromise with legislators are over, at least for now.

"It must be brought home to everyone that the president and the policy of reform are all under the protection of the people from now on," he said at a Kremlin meeting with the regional leaders. "Decisions that run counter to the popular will, whoever makes them, will not be implemented and are to be abolished."

The legislature, Yeltsin said, now must choose to support him and his reforms or to "confront the will of the people." In a strongly worded speech later to government ministers, he also warned that anyone opposing his reforms would be fired.

Conservative lawmakers recently have clipped Yeltsin's powers, tried to impeach him and put the brakes on his reforms. But a clear majority of Russians voting in Sunday's referendum backed Yeltsin and his painful program of economic reform, while signaling their extreme dissatisfaction with parliament.

Nonetheless, the parliament announced Thursday that it would push ahead with its own constitution, though few details were provided. The legislators have kept up their attack on Yeltsin and his programs this week. They criticized the government's privatization drive as "unsatisfactory," attacked Yeltsin's policy on Yugoslavia, disbanded a reformist, pro-Yeltsin parliamentary committee and set up an investigation into alleged corruption by Yeltsin appointees.

The legislature, elected in 1990 when the Communist Party still ruled, is dominated by ex-Communists, hard-line nationalists and centrists opposed to Yeltsin's free-market reforms and pro-Western foreign policy.

Russia's constitution, a much-amended remnant of the Soviet era, is at the heart of the country's political crisis. Adopted in 1978, it never envisioned a democratically elected president, giving power instead to a two-tiered legislative branch in which the Congress of People's Deputies, which now has 1,033 members, had supreme authority. In practice, however, the Congress merely rubber-stamped decisions made by top Communist Party leaders.

In the current democratic era, the Congress has discovered its unintended power and used it against Yeltsin, Russia's first popularly elected president. Over the last six months, its members have amended the constitution dozens of times to reduce Yeltsin's powers and hamper his reforms, creating an atmosphere of chaos and economic uncertainty.