Anti-Yeltsin hardliners break ranks: Rebel MPs say rejection of constitutional reforms would imperil

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The Independent Online
TWO erstwhile hardliners in the Russian parliament broke ranks with the chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov, yesterday and argued that President Boris Yeltsin's plans for a new constitution deserved the deputies' serious consideration. The rebellion suggested that the Soviet-era parliament, which at first refused to accept Mr Yeltsin's victory in the April referendum, might be coming round to the idea of compromise with him.

Earlier this week, Mr Yeltsin invited Russia's 88 regions to send delegates to a June assembly which, he hopes, will draft a new constitution giving Russia a French-style political system, with a strong presidency. Mr Khasbulatov was immediately critical, saying the assembly would break the law if it adopted a new constitution, as only parliament was entitled to change the existing text which dates back to the time of Leonid Brezhnev.

But yesterday, during a debate in which the deputies voted to ask the Constitutional Court to rule on the legality of Mr Yeltsin's move, Nikolai Ryabov, Mr Khasbulatov's aide, made an unexpected intervention, saying: 'The creation of a constitutional assembly is more than justified as a means of reaching agreement. It's a question of Russia's future, of parliament's future . . . Rejection of this presidential proposal would lead us directly on to a path of social confrontation.' He suggested that rather than being obstructive the MPs should try to make sure they were represented at the June gathering.

Visibly flustered, Mr Khasbulatov interrupted Mr Ryabov, warning him that 'it is dangerous for parliament to be dragged into anti-constitutional structures'. At this, another MP, Veniamin Sokolov, leapt up and said: 'I would ask the chairman not to exert pressure on deputies. I would allow myself the remark that Ruslan Imramovich (Khasbulatov) was not exactly correct when he said that at their recent meeting most regional leaders rejected the idea of the assembly.'

Parliament is drafting a new constitution of its own which would limit the powers of the executive, but some deputies see the possibility of combining elements of this plan with parts of Mr Yeltsin's. The President's draft guarantees Western-style human rights and calls for a federal system, a very novel idea in this highly centralised country.

It is unclear, however, how the regional delegates to the constitutional assembly, which could later turn into one of two chambers of a new parliament, are to be chosen. Yesterday Alexander Ortyonov, of the presidential press service, said it was up to the regions to decide how they selected their delegates. He acknowledged there was a risk that, while liberal areas might, for example, popularly elect their representatives, more backward regions could simply appoint old hack politicians, as they did under Communism.

Mr Yeltsin and the Georgian leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, meeting in Moscow yesterday, agreed to press for a ceasefire by 20 May in the Black Sea region of Abkhazia, where Tbilisi accuses former Soviet troops of helping separatists.

Later, Mr Yeltsin attended a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States at which nine out of 10 ex-Soviet republics, including Ukraine, signed a declaration of intent to set up an economic union. The dissenter was Turkmenistan.