Yeltsin accused of despotism: President manages to split opponents in battle to bring sweeping reforms

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PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin was yesterday accused of trying to impose an 'anti-Communist dictatorship' and warned that ramming through a new constitution would only take Russia back to the tyranny that followed its last attempt at a constitutional overhaul in 1918.

The charges came from Ruslan Khasbulatov, chairman of the Congress of People's Deputies, the Soviet-era legislature that will be abolished if Mr Yeltsin succeeds in imposing his blueprint for sweeping political reform. 'Why are we trying to restore a dictatorship, replacing the Communist dictatorship with an anti-Communist dictatorship?' Mr Khasbulatov asked a meeting of Russia's smaller standing parliament, the Supreme Soviet, which also faces extinction.

In place of Russia's current political structure, which vests supreme authority in more than 1,000 members of Congress but which for the past six months has produced only political paralysis, Mr Yeltsin wants a powerful presidential republic. There would be a bicameral legislature, trimmed in both size and powers.

Mr Yeltsin has faced much criticism from his enemies for his handling of a constitutional assembly which opened on Saturday in Moscow and quickly sank into chaos when Mr Khas bulatov was denied permission to speak and stormed from the hall, followed by some 50 out of the more than 700 delegates.

Clearly eager to deflect accusations of heavy-handed bullying, Mr Yeltsin yesterday offered a hint of compromise. He promised a full session of the convention for later today so that members of parliament could speak. This breaks with a carefully scripted plan that would have kept the assembly's delegates divided into five so-called working groups, aside from two plenary sessions at the beginning and end - for which a deadline of 16 June has been set by Mr Yeltsin.

Mr Yeltsin is still a long way from installing his constitution. But he has managed to engineer a serious split in parliament, several of whose leaders have defected to his side, most notably Nikolai Ryabov, a deputy chairman of the Congress of People's Deputies.

The President regards his clear referendum victory on his policies and leadership on 25 April as a popular mandate for the introduction of a new constitution to replace a document still in force though written for Leonid Brezhnev in 1978.