Khasbulatov told to boycott Yeltsin constitution talks

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - President Boris Yeltsin's hopes of reaching a quick agreement on a new Russian constitution were dashed yesterday when the Soviet-era parliament instructed its chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov, to stay away from a special assembly trying to draft a new basic law, writes Helen Womack. The ostensible reason for parliament's boycott was concern over alleged corruption by two politicians close to Mr Yeltsin. But reformers saw the refusal to participate as an attempt to frustrate the President's political designs.

The Constitutional Assembly, bringing together Russia's regional leaders, government officials and businessmen, is due to re-open tomorrow, after a 10-day recess during which five working groups have been poring over a possible text. Before the assembly adjourned, Mr Yeltsin said delegates were considering not only his proposals but also ideas put forward by parliament, and expressed confidence that a unified document would soon be ready.

That optimism seemed premature: Mr Khasbulatov, who had stormed out of the opening session of the assembly on 5 June after being denied the rostrum, had not responded to Mr Yeltsin's invitation to him to return to the gathering. Yesterday's developments made clear that the President faces more battles before he can change the political structure to suit himself.

Parliament's resolution formally recalling Mr Khasbulatov from the assembly said he should take no further part in its deliberations until Mr Yeltsin sacked his First Deputy Prime Minister, Vladimir Shumeiko, and his media aide, Mikhail Poltoranin. Nikolai Makarov, the head of a group investigating corruption, had earlier told parliament that the two had awarded commercial contracts which 'damaged the interests of Russia'. The deputy parliamentary chairman, Vladimir Ispravnikov, said: 'The new constitution must be passed with clean hands.'

Father Gleb Yakunin, an Orthodox priest who was imprisoned under Communism and is now one of the few liberal deputies in parliament, dismissed this contemptuously. 'The sole aim of today's decisions is to undermine the Constitutional Assembly and grasp the initiative in drafting a constitution,' he said. 'They have nothing to do with any desire to set Russia free from corruption.'

It is understandable that the parliamentary deputies do not want Mr Yeltsin to achieve his constitution for, by creating a stronger presidency and a new two-tier parliament, it would put them out of a job. Mr Yeltsin, who won a vote of confidence in his leadership in a referendum in April, had hoped that the regional leaders at the assembly would give a quick blessing to his plans in exchange for more autonomy. But the provinicial politicians have disappointed him in this, and instead raised new arguments about the rights that different kinds of regions should have vis-a-vis Moscow.

A strike by scientists responsible for dismantling Russia's nuclear weapons was averted yesterday when Mr Yeltsin promised to find more money to improve their living conditions.