Yeltsin's sheet-anchor: The draft constitution is based on a strong presidency, reports Andrew Higgins in Moscow

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The Independent Online
FOLLOWING more in the steps of Charles de Gaulle than George Washington, Boris Yeltsin wants to anchor Russia's post-Communist democracy in a strong presidency and do away with the posts of his principal adversaries.

A draft constitution approved yesterday by a special assembly in Moscow - though still a long way from becoming law - has been tailored to match Mr Yeltsin's own pre-eminent role in dragging Russian politics from raucous free-for-all towards more ordered debate.

But it retreats from some of the more extreme prerogatives granted the executive in an initial draft put before the assembly when it opened on 5 June. According to Mr Yeltsin, 130 articles in what was originally a 133- article document have been amended. And more changes will certainly be needed before it can replace a constitution drafted for Leonid Brezhnev in 1978, revised more than 300 times since, but still in force two years after the collapse of the Communist regime.

The new constitution mirrors in some ways that drawn up for de Gaulle at the start of the Fifth Republic in October 1958. It aimed to end a deep political paralysis born of years of bickering and revolving-door governments. Francois Mitterrand condemned it as 'permanent coup d'etat'. Ruslan Khasbulatov, chairman of Russia's parliament, levels similar charges against Mr Yeltsin's constitutional blueprint. The new constitution proposes to sweep away the legislative system inherited from the Soviet era and replace it with a slimmed down bi-cameral legislature called the Federal Assembly.

Abolished therefore will be Mr Khasbulatov's power base - the Supreme Soviet, a standing legislature whose members last faced elections in 1990, and the Congress of People's Deputies, a full parliament with more than 1,000 deputies.

Mr Yeltsin also wants to do away with the post of vice-president, currently occupied by Alexander Rutskoi, a frequent and fierce critic.

Mr Yeltsin, however, has been forced to make concessions. 'The draft constitution today has ceased to be presidential or parliamentary,' he told more than 500 delegates attending a final session of an on-again-off- again Constitutional Assembly in the Kremlin. 'It is nobody's victory or defeat but a unification of our forces.'

It drops, for example, clauses giving the president the right to dissolve parliament unilaterally and to appoint a prime minister irrespective of the balance of forces in the legislature. The president's term is cut from five to four years. The new draft also strengthens what would have been an emasculated legislature, granting it the right to initiate money bills.

Details should not conceal the scale and importance of the task in hand, perhaps comparable only to that attempted in Philadelphia in 1787, when Benjamin Franklin and others met to replace America's colonial legacy with an an entirely new system of governance.

Instead of only 13 states, however, Russia has 89 territorial units, ranging from ethnically-based republics to vast regions eager to grab as much power and money from Moscow as possible. And it is they who will now decide what happens next. To try to get support from the regions, tired of paying higher taxes to subsidise generally poorer but more privileged republics, which are based on ethnic groups, Mr Yeltsin has promised to level the economic status of all territories. But this may not be enough to halt a chain reaction of regions declaring themselves republics.

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