The stage for a bitter confrontation with conservative legislators was set yesterday when the chairman of the Congress, Ruslan Khasbulatov, rejected Mr Yeltsin's latest proposals for ending a paralysing feud over power-sharing between the executive and legislative branches.
'This is not something to be taken seriously,' said Mr Khasbulatov, who also heads Russia's smaller standing parliament, the Supreme Soviet, 'It is some kind of game.'
He was speaking in response to a six-point draft law put forward by President Yeltsin on Sunday to delineate clearly the division of power. But even Mr Yeltsin acknowledged that the document had little chance of being accepted and vowed to press ahead with a constitutional referendum on 11 April.
Whether the referendum can be held, however, will depend on today's Congress, which is dominated by conservatives elected under Communism in 1990 but which, apart from a general dislike of free-market reform, is itself divided into more than a dozen feuding factions. Congress agreed to the poll at its last session in December but is now threatening to renege on the deal.
Despite months of haggling, there is still agreement on what, if any, questions should be put to voters. Mr Yeltsin has put forward four of his own but the Supreme Soviet yesterday refused to approve them, leaving a final decision to Congress.
While the dispute between President Yeltsin and Mr Khasbulatov revolves around often arcane points of constitutional law that have left most Russians baffled, the real fight is over who should have ultimate power and the course of economic reform. Both the President and Mr Khasbulatov have veered between doom-laden bluster and pleas for compromise.
The most extreme scenarios for today's Congress range from an attempt to impeach President Yeltsin to a declaration of emergency rule by the President. A more likely outcome, however, is a continuation of the muddle that has sapped the President's authority and played into the hands of an extremist alliance made up of hardline nationalists and former Communists.
Public disillusion with mainstream politics is growing deeper by the day, and there are growing calls for a strong hand to restore order.
To try and calm concern about any possible coup attempt, the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, has said that no Moscow military units will be placed on alert during the Congress and he has promised to keep the armed forces out of politics.
It is a measure of just how uncertain Russian politics has become that what was supposed to have been the centrepiece of the Congress session - a compromise power-sharing accord promised by Mr Yeltsin and Mr Khasbulatov last month - does not even exist. The two men set up a commission to reach a deal but, like everything else, it quickly became buried in a morass of public polemics and back-room bickering.
Instead of merely endorsing an agreed deal between itself and the President as originally intended, the Congress must now come with its own solution, a prospect that, if past sessions are anything to go by, promises uproarious, even violent debate.
President Yeltsin last week threatened an unspecified 'final option' if the constitutional dispute dragged on. Army generals were reported to have demanded 'decisive action' to end the dispute. Similar, if slightly less extreme, sabre-rattling preceded the December session of Congress, which humiliated Mr Yeltsin by forcing him to dump his prime minister, Yegor Gaidar.
Russia's liberal Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, whose dismissal has been demanded for months by conservatives, continued the drum-roll of grim warnings yesterday, saying that Russia faced 'chaos and civil confrontation' if a deal was not reached.
Mr Yeltsin, however, backed away from previous threats. 'I still keep alive the hope that accord can be found. We are open to any proposals and do not insist on any particular one,' he told regional leaders in Moscow. 'The most difficult economic reforms have been going for more than a year . . . In these conditions any confrontation could have the most disastrous results.'
President Yeltsin remains far more popular than Mr Khasbulatov, or either the Supreme Soviet or its parent body, the Congress. But the approval rating for his policies has slipped to less than 30 per cent, according to a recent poll in Izvestia newspaper. The same poll revealed deep apathy, with 46 per cent of Moscow residents saying they definitely would not vote in a referendum if it is ever held. And interest is certainly far weaker outside the capital.Reuse content