Khasbulatov's tea party fails to impress: The image-conscious chairman of Russia's parliament embarks on a charm offensive. Helen Womack reports from Moscow

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The Independent Online
RUSSIA'S parliamentary chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov, who is accused by critics of using Machiavellian wiles to obstuct President Boris Yeltsin's reforms and keep old Communists in power, invited a small group of foreign correspondents to tea at the weekend to project a very different image of himself as a committed constitutionalist and democrat.

'I don't understand the limited approach of Western leaders who give all their support to one person (Mr Yeltsin),' he said. 'There is nothing reactionary about us (parliament). We are interested in the peaceful development of Russian society. I want to see an active and authoritative president, an active and authoritative parliament and a strong state.'

Mr Khasbulatov, who often brow-beats the deputies to get his way in the Soviet-era parliament, was soft-spoken and concerned to appear constructive at the tea party. He held this, disappointingly, not in his six-room flat originally built for the late Kremlin leader Konstantin Chernenko, nor in his state dacha, but in a conference hall inside the White House. Security men wearing badges reading 'service of the regime' double-checked our identities before we were allowed into the hall for tea, soft drinks and biscuits.

The parliamentary chairman acknowledged that the Russian people were tired of watching their political leaders wrangling and said that the priority now must be to get down to solving economic problems 'to bring some optimism and confidence back into society'. Although he said he could not attend Mr Yeltsin's Constitutional Assembly because parliament had instructed him not to, he promised that when the text of a new Russian Basic Law was ready, it would receive a fair hearing in parliament. 'Let them produce their document and we will look at it constructively,' he said.

Mr Khasbulatov, 51, a former economics professor who resisted the August 1991 coup alongside Mr Yeltsin before becoming one of his main rivals, also took a conciliatory approach to the question of the Crimean port of Sevastopol which the Russian parliament, against his advice, on Friday proclaimed Russian and not Ukrainian property. Historically Russian, Crimea had been given to Ukraine in an arbitrary decision by Nikita Krushchev's Politburo, he said.

This did not really matter as long as the Soviet Union was one country but now controversy had become acute. Nevertheless, he said, 'I would have preferred a softer decision. This (Friday's vote) does not mean we should take up arms. I am a firm believer in the peaceful resolution of problems. I will never let myself be the initiator of an armed conflict.'

Mr Yeltsin says he stands by an agreement with Ukraine to share the Black Sea Fleet and access to Sevastopol.

On other issues Mr Khasbulatov, an ethnic Chechen from Russia's northern Caucasus region, expressed opinions which identify him with the conservative camp. Apart from the odd swipe at 'former Communists threatening society with dictatorship', by which he meant Mr Yeltsin and his team, Mr Khasbulatov, himself a former chief of agitation and propaganda in the Communist youth organisation Komsomol, avoided attacking the President.

But he was highly critical of the Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, who has co-operated with the West over the former Yugoslavia, saying he was 'inadequate' and had done nothing but harm to Russia's interests.

He also thought that the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, which has persuaded Estonia to tone down its aliens law, should have brought even more influence to bear on the Baltic republic to respect the rights of ethnic Russians and believed that prospects for peace in Nagorny Karabakh were better now that the 'experienced' politician, Geidar Aliyev, had taken power in Azerbaijan. Mr Aliyev, who once made a speech praising Leonid Brezhnev 133 times, was sacked by Mikhail Gorbachev under suspicion of gross corruption.

Most of all, however, Mr Khasbulatov will have disappointed liberals with his insistence that Russia does not need new parliamentary elections despite an April referendum result showing nearly 60 per cent public confidence in Mr Yeltsin and little support for the deputies. Mr Khasbulatov said he did not fear elections, indeed he would be happy to return to the quiet life of a professor, but it would be wrong to hold them since only a majority of participants and not a majority of the total registered electorate had backed the idea. 'We must learn to respect the will of the voters,' he said.

Throughout the tea party, Mr Khasbulatov looked longingly at his pipe and tobacco pouch but did not light up until the end, when the photographers present immediately started clicking their cameras. 'No, please,' he said. 'I can't even have a quiet smoke these days without people saying, 'Ah, Stalin'.' (The Soviet dictator, a Caucasian like Mr Khasbulatov, smoked a pipe.)

The parliamentary chairman has an image problem and he knows it. He hoped the journalists would help him to overcome it. Most of us left still feeling sceptical.