Congress Curbs Yeltsin's PowerBy Margaret Shapiro
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 13, 1993; Page A01
MOSCOW, MARCH 12 -- President Boris Yeltsin, stung by a humiliating defeat in Russia's conservative Congress today, stormed out and vowed to defend his reform programs and settle the country's debilitating power struggle by taking his case to the voters.
Yeltsin's declaration and congressional defiance put the two branches of government on a collision course that had politicians talking of impeachment, presidential rule and civil war, although less drastic moves remain likely.
"The smooth reformist period has ended," said Yeltsin's legal strategist, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Shakhrai. "We are on the verge of unpredictable events."
Yeltsin's political authority was damaged much more severely than his legal powers as the Congress of People's Deputies, a holdover from the Soviet political system, ignored his pleas for compromise and his threats of unspecified "additional measures." Instead, it voted overwhelmingly to give itself the power to suspend Yeltsin's decrees and to make it easier to remove him from office for unconstitutional behavior. It also canceled the December agreement that authorized a referendum next month to settle the question of who should rule Russia.
The Russian president, who stood atop a tank to face down a military coup in August 1991, was hooted and laughed at by ex-Communists and hard-line nationalist lawmakers. Legislators also made it clear that they will go after Yeltsin and his reforms even more aggressively when the Congress meets again, probably next month.
Even Yeltsin's supporters worried that he was showing himself unable to avoid the slow erosion of authority that eventually destroyed the Soviet Union's last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.
"There are no 'additional measures,' " said Yeltsin supporter Leonid Gurevich. "If there were, he would have used them by now."
While the power struggle inside the Kremlin's walls drew a collective shrug from most Russians, who are sick of the infighting and anxious about the collapsing economy, it left political Moscow deeply unsettled.
Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev called in ambassadors from Western countries this afternoon to assure them that Yeltsin is still in control and would not make any anti-democratic moves, Western diplomats said tonight.
Miners in Russia's biggest coal field declared their support for Yeltsin and threatened a strike to put pressure on the Congress.
The Congress, meanwhile, was filled with false rumors of tank movements around the Kremlin, including one report that turned out to be nothing but snow-removal trucks. The legislators decided to extend their emergency session an extra day, to Saturday, to respond to any "unconstitutional" measures Yeltsin might take.
"The legislative branch of power is ready to observe the constitution strictly, but we should watch most attentively how the executive branch of power observes the constitution," said Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, a former Yeltsin ally but now his chief adversary.
But in a sign of possible compromise, the Congress's leadership also agreed to reconsider Yeltsin's demand for the nationwide referendum. In any case, Yeltsin's spokesmen said, the Russian leader will press ahead unilaterally with a referendum or similar nationwide poll on April 25.
Yeltsin's aides said the president would address the nation soon to explain the power struggle with the Congress and, presumably, the course of action he intends to take. "The president has said his last word to the Congress," said Yeltsin spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov. "He understands he has only one partner left with whom he can talk. That is the people."
The main problem for Yeltsin is that he must operate under the terms of a Brezhnev-era constitution that was not intended for a popularly elected president in a democracy. Under the Soviet system, the Congress operated as a rubber stamp even though it was designated in the constitution as the supreme power of the land, over the president and a smaller standing parliament. Today it is claiming its authorized power.
It seemed clear after Yeltsin angrily stormed out of the Congress that he has few options left for reasserting his power. None of them is without risk:
Going ahead with a referendum unilaterally would leave him vulnerable to charges of having violated the constitution, which requires legislative approval for any such vote. In addition, many regional leaders worry that such a nationwide poll would be politically destabilizing. Having already encouraged Yeltsin not to hold it, they may not go along with it. Finally, with economic hardship growing, it is far from clear that a majority of Russians would support him or even bother to vote, thus making the results inconclusive and leaving the current stalemate in effect.
Yeltsin could accept his constitutional limitations and simply order a plebiscite or survey. His aides said that would enhance his moral authority, but they acknowledged it would have no legal weight.
Ignoring the limitations on his power imposed by the Congress would leave him open to impeachment. Some reformers have suggested that Yeltsin go this route and challenge the constitutionality of the Congress and its actions in Russia's Constitutional Court. After today's vote, First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Shumeiko declared that the Congress has "left the sphere of legality. Their decisions have no legitimacy."
But Yeltin runs the substantial risk of losing in a court challenge, especially since the Constitutional Court's chief justice told the Congress this week that he sees nothing wrong with the constitution.
Some politicians urged early elections of both a new Congress and the president as a way of resolving the crisis.
Finally there is the route of imposing some form of presidential rule, perhaps declaring the Congress a Communist relic of the Soviet era and disbanding it. But to do that, Yeltsin would have to have the full support of Russia's security forces, which is not certain. In addition, he would tarnish his image as a democrat, would not be guaranteed to have the West's support and could increase the political chaos and hasten Russia's disintegration.
Yeltsin's aides denied today that he is planning any extraordinary measures.