Decision day for Russian MPs

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The Independent Online
WARNED by Boris Yeltsin that the fate of the nation is in their hands, Russia's unruly deputies will vote today on whether to strip the President of his powers to appoint the government. If they go ahead and defy him, the chances are that Mr Yeltsin will defend his reforming cabinet by seeking a mandate from the Russian people to dissolve the Congress, which dates back to the undemocratic Soviet era and is packed with nostalgic Communists.

Despite Mr Yeltsin's request for the Congress to hear his nomination for Prime Minister (Mr Yeltsin would almost certainly have proposed that Yegor Gaidar continue in his post), the deputies, who on Thursday were brawling, insisted on debating amendments to the constitution which would give parliament the right to choose the cabinet. Government members should 'realise that they do not do their job for the sake of just one person and that they are responsible to the parliament', declared the assembly's vice- chairman, Yuri Yarov.

Mr Yeltsin was outraged. 'The adoption of the amendments would mean a turnaround of 180 degrees and would reverse the development of Russian statehood,' he told the Congress. Tied to parliament, the government would be 'doomed to imitating activity. Of course there should be effective control over the cabinet's work . . . but if we have a spineless appendage or weak-willed government such control loses all sense. We will achieve nothing if we regard this control as surveillance over prisoners behind barbed-wire when one step to the left or one step to the right is regarded as an attempt to escape.'

The Social Affairs Minister, Ella Pamfilova, said she would resign immediately if parliament took over government appointments. 'I agreed to be a minister, not a puppet,' she said. Anatoly Shabad, one of the minority of deputies who supports Mr Yeltsin, said a strong government was needed to see reform through. 'The President was chosen by the people. This (the proposed amendment) makes him a purely decorative figure.'

The deputies have become increasingly hostile to Mr Yeltsin and his team since Mr Gaidar delivered an uncompromising speech to them on Wednesday, saying there could be no turning back on the straight and narrow road to the free market. Moderate ex-Communists want more state intervention to prop up ailing and defence-related industries, and hardliners want to abandon the attempt at reform altogether because they feel it has done nothing but impoverish the population.

Mr Yeltsin has tried to meet the industrialists' Civic Union half- way by dropping some unpopular aides who are peripheral to reform. Yesterday he continued this strategic reshuffling by transferring the Education Minister, Eduard Dneprov, to other work. But he refuses to water down economic reform by, for example, restoring central control over distribution or artificially supporting the rouble.

Today's vote will be by secret ballot, something the reformers had hoped to avoid, and could well go against Mr Yeltsin. Stanislav Shustov, a liberal MP, said power seemed to be draining from the President to the conservative parliamentary Speaker, Ruslan Khasbulatov. 'Given the secret ballot, the President could be betrayed even by his so-called supporters,' he said.

If Mr Yeltsin loses the vote, it will be a serious setback for him but it will not be the end of the struggle. His spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, said yesterday that because the Congress had 'turned a deaf ear to the President, distanced itself from the people and become unreasonable', Mr Yeltsin was 'contemplating a direct appeal to the people'. This was taken to mean that he would call a referendum on the dissolution of the Congress, which would normally run until 1994, and the holding of democratic parliamentary elections.

The Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, also seemed to imply that Mr Yeltsin had a card or two up his sleeve when he told the West: 'I want to assure you that the position of our government is stable enough, our determination is strong enough not to allow a revanchist reversal of our course. You need not worry that tomorrow or the day after Russia will go back to its old ways of confrontation . . . (or) will turn its back on reform.'

A referendum on dissolving the Congress would take time to organise, time that Russia cannot afford as it flounders in a deepening economic crisis. A referendum would also inflame political passions and, after this year's steep price rises, Mr Yeltsin is not as popular with ordinary people as he was when overwhelmingly elected President in June 1991.

(Photograph omitted)

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